Biology and Fertility of Soils

, Volume 46, Issue 4, pp 333–342 | Cite as

Structural and functional response of soil microbiota to addition of plant substrate are moderated by soil Cu levels

  • Steven Alan Wakelin
  • Guixin Chu
  • Kris Broos
  • K. R. Clarke
  • Yongchao Liang
  • Mike J. McLaughlin
Original Paper


In soils, the microbially mediated decomposition of plant residue is a key process with wide ranging effects on ecosystem functioning and stability. Understanding the impact of contamination on this process is of high importance. We investigated the effects of long-term (6 years) copper exposure on the capacity of soil microbiota to decompose newly added resources; dried and ground Medicago truncatula stubble. In addition, the effects on the microbial community structure across the three domains were explored using polymerase chain reaction–denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis rRNA gene profiling. Ecological distances in community structure between treatments was calculated (Kulczynski) and effects tested using PERMANOVA. Clear dose–response relationships were present between microbial respiration (CO2 evolution) and soil Cu level in soils receiving medic, but not under basal conditions (i.e., no medic added). These show that relatively labile forms of C are needed to drive microbial ecotoxicological responses and that microbial adaptation to the presence of Cu in the soils—after >6 years exposure—was functionally limited. Bacterial, archaeal and fungal communities showed significant (P < 0.05) levels of structural change in soils across the Cu gradient, demonstrating that species replacement had occurred following strong selective pressure. Addition of medic resources to the soils caused significant shifts in the bacterial and archaeal community structure (P < 0.001), which occurred across the entire range of soil Cu levels. For the fungal community, a significant interaction effect was present between Cu and medic addition (P = 0.002). At low Cu levels, medic addition caused large shifts in community structure, but this was negligible under high Cu levels. This was reflected in significant changes in the level of community structural dispersion at low compared with high Cu levels. As such, we show that Cu limits the capacity of soil fungal communities to rapidly respond to new resource capture. Given the primary role of soil fungi in plant material decomposition, this may have wide ranging impacts on wider ecosystem processes including nutrient cycling, trophic interactions, food web stability and energy transfer.


Decomposition Microbial community structure Copper 



Ms. Adrienne Gregg provided technical assistance on the experiments. Guixin Chu was funded by the China Scholarship Council. Steven Wakelin was funded by a CSIRO OCE Julius Award. Bob Clarke acknowledges his honorary fellowships at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Marine Biological Association of the UK, and his adjunct professorship at Murdoch University, Western Australia. We thank Dr. Harvey Motulsky for help with regression line fitting (GraphPad Software, Inc.) and Prof. Marti Anderson (Massey University, Auckland) for further advice on multivariate data analysis within PRIMER and PERMANOVA+. Drs. Lynne Macdonald and Stephanie Diallo kindly commented on the drafts of this manuscript.

Supplementary material

374_2009_436_MOESM1_ESM.jpg (46 kb)
Supplementary Fig. 1 A and B: Microbial respiration (C mineralisation) in soils with a Cu gradient. Respiration was calculated after 21 h incubation (dark conditions, 25°C) of soil with (A) and without (B) medic added. In soils receiving medic, a EC50 dose–response value was determined along with 95% confidence intervals (shaded area in 1A). (JPEG 45 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven Alan Wakelin
    • 1
    • 4
  • Guixin Chu
    • 2
  • Kris Broos
    • 3
    • 4
  • K. R. Clarke
    • 5
  • Yongchao Liang
    • 6
  • Mike J. McLaughlin
    • 1
    • 7
  1. 1.Centre for Environmental Contaminants ResearchCSIRO Land and Water, PMB 2Glen OsmondAustralia
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental ScienceShihezi UniversityXinjiangPeople’s Republic of China
  3. 3.VITO–Flemish Institute for Technological ResearchMolBelgium
  4. 4.Managing Australia’s Soil and Landscape AssetsCSIRO Land and Water, PMB 2Glen OsmondAustralia
  5. 5.Plymouth Marine LaboratoryWest HoeUK
  6. 6.Chinese Academy of Agricultural SciencesInstitute of Natural Resources and Regional PlanningBeijingPeople’s Republic of China
  7. 7.School of Earth and Environmental SciencesThe University of Adelaide, PMB 1Glen OsmondAustralia

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