, Volume 174, Issue 1, pp 283–294 | Cite as

Litter quality versus soil microbial community controls over decomposition: a quantitative analysis

  • Cory C. ClevelandEmail author
  • Sasha C. Reed
  • Adrienne B. Keller
  • Diana R. Nemergut
  • Sean P. O’Neill
  • Rebecca Ostertag
  • Peter M. Vitousek
Ecosystem ecology - Original research


The possible effects of soil microbial community structure on organic matter decomposition rates have been widely acknowledged, but are poorly understood. Understanding these relationships is complicated by the fact that microbial community structure and function are likely to both affect and be affected by organic matter quality and chemistry, thus it is difficult to draw mechanistic conclusions from field studies. We conducted a reciprocal soil inoculum × litter transplant laboratory incubation experiment using samples collected from a set of sites that have similar climate and plant species composition but vary significantly in bacterial community structure and litter quality. The results showed that litter quality explained the majority of variation in decomposition rates under controlled laboratory conditions: over the course of the 162-day incubation, litter quality explained nearly two-thirds (64 %) of variation in decomposition rates, and a smaller proportion (25 %) was explained by variation in the inoculum type. In addition, the relative importance of inoculum type on soil respiration increased over the course of the experiment, and was significantly higher in microcosms with lower litter quality relative to those with higher quality litter. We also used molecular phylogenetics to examine the relationships between bacterial community composition and soil respiration in samples through time. Pyrosequencing revealed that bacterial community composition explained 32 % of the variation in respiration rates. However, equal portions (i.e., 16 %) of the variation in bacterial community composition were explained by inoculum type and litter quality, reflecting the importance of both the meta-community and the environment in bacterial assembly. Taken together, these results indicate that the effects of changing microbial community composition on decomposition are likely to be smaller than the potential effects of climate change and/or litter quality changes in response to increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations or atmospheric nutrient deposition.


Carbon cycle Decomposition Ecosystem function Global change Microbial community 



We thank H. Farrington and J. Schulten for logistical and sampling support, and B. Houlton and the plant analysis lab at the University of California Davis for performing the litter lignin analyses. M. Strickland, N. Fierer and two anonymous reviewers provided valuable comments on the experiment and the manuscript. We acknowledge the generous financial support of the both the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation (DEB—0919080). Any use of trade names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Supplementary material

442_2013_2758_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (162 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 161 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cory C. Cleveland
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sasha C. Reed
    • 2
  • Adrienne B. Keller
    • 1
  • Diana R. Nemergut
    • 3
  • Sean P. O’Neill
    • 3
  • Rebecca Ostertag
    • 4
  • Peter M. Vitousek
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, CHCB 423BUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  2. 2.U.S. Geological SurveySouthwest Biological Science CenterMoabUSA
  3. 3.Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Environmental Studies ProgramUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  4. 4.Department of BiologyUniversity of HawaiiHiloUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

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