, Volume 109, Issue 1, pp 7-18

First online:

Integrating microbial ecology into ecosystem models: challenges and priorities

  • Kathleen K. TresederAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California Email author 
  • , Teri C. BalserAffiliated withDepartment of Soil Science, University of Wisconsin—Madison
  • , Mark A. BradfordAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
  • , Eoin L. BrodieAffiliated withCenter for Environmental Biotechnology, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • , Eric A. DubinskyAffiliated withCenter for Environmental Biotechnology, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
  • , Valerie T. EvinerAffiliated withDepartment of Plant Sciences, University of California Davis
  • , Kirsten S. HofmockelAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology, Evolution, & Organismal Biology, Iowa State University
  • , Jay T. LennonAffiliated withW. K. Kellogg Biological Station and the Department of Microbiology & Molecular Genetics, Michigan State University
  • , Uri Y. LevineAffiliated withDepartment of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, Michigan State University
    • , Barbara J. MacGregorAffiliated withDepartment of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina
    • , Jennifer Pett-RidgeAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of CaliforniaNanoSIMS Group, Chemical Sciences Division, Lawrence Livermore National Lab
    • , Mark P. WaldropAffiliated withDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of CaliforniaU.S. Geological Survey

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Microbial communities can potentially mediate feedbacks between global change and ecosystem function, owing to their sensitivity to environmental change and their control over critical biogeochemical processes. Numerous ecosystem models have been developed to predict global change effects, but most do not consider microbial mechanisms in detail. In this idea paper, we examine the extent to which incorporation of microbial ecology into ecosystem models improves predictions of carbon (C) dynamics under warming, changes in precipitation regime, and anthropogenic nitrogen (N) enrichment. We focus on three cases in which this approach might be especially valuable: temporal dynamics in microbial responses to environmental change, variation in ecological function within microbial communities, and N effects on microbial activity. Four microbially-based models have addressed these scenarios. In each case, predictions of the microbial-based models differ—sometimes substantially—from comparable conventional models. However, validation and parameterization of model performance is challenging. We recommend that the development of microbial-based models must occur in conjunction with the development of theoretical frameworks that predict the temporal responses of microbial communities, the phylogenetic distribution of microbial functions, and the response of microbes to N enrichment.


Community composition Functional groups Global change Nitrogen Precipitation Temporal dynamics Warming