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Changes in soil heterotrophic respiration, carbon availability, and microbial function in seven forests along a climate gradient

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Soil microbial communities play an essential role in soil carbon (C) emission and C sequestration in forest ecosystems. However, little information is available regarding the relationship between soil C dynamics and microbial substrate utilization at large scales. Along the North–South Transect of Eastern China (NSTEC), seven forests representative of boreal, temperate and tropical biomes were examined. Soil heterotrophic respiration (Rh), soil dissolved organic C (DOC), microbial biomass C (MBC), and microbial community-level physiological profiles (CLPPs) were investigated using biochemical measurements, static chamber-gas chromatography analysis, and Biolog-Eco microplates, respectively. We found that soil Rh rates were significantly higher in subtropical and boreal forests than in temperate forests. Conversely, the concentrations of soil DOC and MBC, as well as microbial metabolic activity and functional diversity, were consistently higher in temperate forests than in subtropical forests. There were considerably different substrate utilization profiles among the boreal, temperate, and subtropical forests. Soil microorganisms from the temperate and boreal forests mainly metabolized high-energy substrates, while those from the subtropical forests used all substrates equally. In addition, soil Rh rates were significantly and negatively related to soil labile C concentrations, total metabolic activity, and the intensity of individual substrate utilization, indicating that soil microbes assimilated more soil substrates, thereby reducing CO2 emissions. Overall, our study suggests that climate factors, as well as substrate availability, dominate the activities and functions of soil microbes at large scales.

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This research was funded by the National Key Research and Development Program (2012CB417103), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31290221, 31130009, and 31290222), Bingwei’s Funds for Young Talents of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (2011RC202) and the CAS Strategic Priority Program (No. XDA05050600). We are grateful to Dr. Elizabeth Entwistle of the University of Michigan for careful reading of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Shulan Cheng.

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Fang, H., Cheng, S., Wang, Y. et al. Changes in soil heterotrophic respiration, carbon availability, and microbial function in seven forests along a climate gradient. Ecol Res 29, 1077–1086 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11284-014-1194-6

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  • Soil heterotrophic respiration
  • Labile carbon concentration
  • Microbial substrate utilization
  • Functional diversity
  • Forest biomes