, Volume 8, Issue 8, pp 928-940
Date: 28 Nov 2005

Plant Communities, Soil Microorganisms, and Soil Carbon Cycling: Does Altering the World Belowground Matter to Ecosystem Functioning?

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Abstract

Soil microorganisms mediate many critical ecosystem processes. Little is known, however, about the factors that determine soil microbial community composition, and whether microbial community composition influences process rates. Here, we investigated whether aboveground plant diversity affects soil microbial community composition, and whether differences in microbial communities in turn affect ecosystem process rates. Using an experimental system at La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica, we found that plant diversity (plots contained 1, 3, 5, or > 25 plant species) had a significant effect on microbial community composition (as determined by phospholipid fatty acid analysis). The different microbial communities had significantly different respiration responses to 24 labile carbon compounds. We then tested whether these differences in microbial composition and catabolic capabilities were indicative of the ability of distinct microbial communities to decompose different types of litter in a fully factorial laboratory litter transplant experiment. Both microbial biomass and microbial community composition appeared to play a role in litter decomposition rates. Our work suggests, however, that the more important mechanism through which changes in plant diversity affect soil microbial communities and their carbon cycling activities may be through alterations in their abundance rather than their community composition.