Plant and Soil

, Volume 344, Issue 1–2, pp 241–254 | Cite as

Response of microbial activity and community structure to decreasing soil osmotic and matric potential

  • Nasrin Chowdhury
  • Petra MarschnerEmail author
  • Richard Burns
Regular Article


Low soil water content (low matric potential) and salinity (low osmotic potential) occur frequently in soils, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions. Although the effect of low matric or low osmotic potential on soil microorganisms have been studied before, this is the first report which compares the effect of the two stresses on microbial activity and community structure. A sand and a sandy loam, differing in pore size distribution, nutrient content and microbial biomass and community structure, were used. For the osmotic stress experiment, salt (NaCl) was added to achieve osmotic potentials from −0.99 to −13.13 MPa (sand) and from −0.21 to 3.41 MPa (sandy loam) after which the soils were pre-incubated at optimal water content for 10d. For the matric stress experiment, soils were also pre-incubated at optimal water content for 10d, after which the water content was adjusted to give matric potentials from −0.03 and −1.68 MPa (sand) and from −0.10 to 1.46 MPa (sandy loam). After amendment with 2% (w/w) pea straw (C/N 26), soil respiration was measured over 14d. Osmotic potential decreased with decreasing soil water content, particularly in the sand. Soil respiration decreased with decreasing water potential (osmotic + matric). At a given water potential, respiration decreased to a greater extent in the matric stress experiment than in the osmotic stress experiment. Decreasing osmotic and matric potential reduced microbial biomass (sum of phospholipid fatty acids measured after 14 days) and changed microbial community structure: fungi were less tolerant to decreasing osmotic potential than bacteria, but more tolerant to decreasing water content. It is concluded that low matric potential may be more detrimental than a corresponding low osmotic potential at optimal soil water content. This is likely to be a consequence of the restricted diffusion of substrates and thus a reduced ability of the microbes to synthesise osmolytes to help maintain cell water content. The study also highlighted that it needs to be considered that decreasing soil water content concentrates the salts, hence microorganisms in dry soils are exposed to two stressors.


Bacteria Fungi PLFA Respiration Salinity Soil water content 



This study was funded by the Australian Research Council. Nasrin Chowdhury received an Endeavour Australia postgraduate scholarship.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nasrin Chowdhury
    • 1
  • Petra Marschner
    • 1
    Email author
  • Richard Burns
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Agriculture, Food & WineThe University of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia
  2. 2.School of Agriculture and Food SciencesThe University of QueenslandBrisbaneAustralia

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