, Volume 23, Issue 3, pp 299-306

Influence of heavy metals on the functional diversity of soil microbial communities

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Three soil types-Calcaric Phaeozem, Eutric Cambisol and Dystric Lithosol-in large container pots were experimentally contaminated with heavy metals at four different levels (light pollution: 300 ppm Zn, 100 ppm Cu, 50 ppm Ni, 50 ppm V and 3 ppm Cd; medium pollution: twofold concentrations; heavy pollution: threefold concentrations; uncontaminated control). We investigated the prognostic potential of 16 soil microbial properties (microbial biomass, respiration, N-mineralization, 13 soil enzymes involved in cycling of C, N, P and S) with regard to their ability to differentiate the four contamination levels. Microbial biomass and enzyme activities decreased with increasing heavy metal pollution, but the amount of decrease differed among the enzymes. Enzymes involved in the C-cycling were least affected, whereas vartous enzyme activities related to the cycling of N, P and S showed a considerable decrease in activity. In particular, arylsulfatase and phosphatase activities were dramatically affected. Their activity decreased to a level of a few percent of their activities in the corresponding unpolluted controls. The data suggest that aside from the loss of rare biochemical capabilities-such as the growth of organisms at the expense of aromatics (Reber 1992)-heavy metal contaminated soils lose very common biochemical propertities which are necessary for the functioning of the ecosystem. Cluster analysis as well as discriminant analysis underline the similarity of the enzyme activity pattern among the controls and among the polluted soils. The trend toward a significant functional diversity loss becomes obvious already at the lowest pollution level. This implies that concentrations of heavy metals in soils near the current EC limits will most probably lead to a considerable reduction in decomposition and nutrient cycling rates. We conclude that heavy metal pollution severely decreases the functional diversity of the soil microbial community and impairs specific pathways of nutrient cycling.

Dedicated to Professor J. C. G. Ottow on the occasion of his 60th birthday