Biodiversity at the plant–soil interface: microbial abundance and community structure respond to litter mixing
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- Chapman, S.K. & Newman, G.S. Oecologia (2010) 162: 763. doi:10.1007/s00442-009-1498-3
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The interactive effects of diversity in plants and microbial communities at the litter interface are not well understood. Mixtures of plant litter from different species often decompose differently than when individual species decompose alone. Previously, we found that litter mixtures of multiple conifers decomposed more rapidly than expected, but litter mixtures that included conifer and aspen litter did not. Understanding the mechanisms underlying these diversity effects may help explain existing anomalous decay dynamics and provide a glimpse into the elusive linkage between plant diversity and the fungi and bacteria that carry out decomposition. We examined the microbial communities on litter from individual plant species decomposing both in mixture and alone. We assessed two main hypotheses to explain how the decomposer community could stimulate mixed-litter decomposition above predicted rates: either by being more abundant, or having a different or more diverse community structure than when microbes decompose a single species of litter. Fungal, bacterial and total phospholipid fatty acid microbial biomass increased by over 40% on both conifer and aspen litter types in mixture, and microbial community composition changed significantly when plant litter types were mixed. Microbial diversity also increased with increasing plant litter diversity. While our data provide support for both the increased abundance hypothesis and the altered microbial community hypothesis, microbial changes do not translate to predictably altered litter decomposition and may only produce synergisms when mixed litters are functionally similar.