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Does history matter? Temperature effects on soil microbial biomass and community structure based on the phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis


Background, aim, and scope

Temperature is an important environmental factor regulating soil microbial biomass, activity, and community. Soils from different climatic regions may have very different dominant soil microbes, which are acclimated to the local conditions like temperature. Changing soil temperature especially warming has been shown to increase the mortality rate of soil microbes. However, little is known about the responses of soil microbes coming from different climatic regions to different incubation temperatures. The objective of this study was to examine the temperature effects on microbial biomass and community of soils collected from cold, intermediate, and hot natural sites.

Materials and methods

Soils were collected from northern (Heilongjiang province), central (Jiangsu province), and southern (Guangxi province) China, these soils having very different temperature histories. The Heilongjiang soil was from the coldest region with a mean annual temperature of 1.2°C, the Jiangsu soil was intermediate with a mean annual temperature of 15.7°C, and Guangxi soil was from the hottest area, with a mean annual temperature of 21.2°C. These three soils were incubated at 4°C, 15°C, 25°C, and 35°C for up to 56 days. Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analyses were conducted on days 0, 3, 7, 14, 28, and 56 to track the dynamics of soil microbes.


Soil microbial biomass indexed by total phospholipid fatty acid concentration decreased with increasing incubation temperature, with that of the Heilongjiang soil decreasing most. At the end of incubation, the biomass at 35°C in the Heilongjiang, Jiangsu, and Guangxi soils had declined to 65%, 72%, and 96% of the initial biomass, respectively. The PLFA patterns shifted with increasing temperatures in all the soils, especially at 35°C; the change was biggest in the Heilongjiang soil.


History does have effects on soil microbes responding to environmental stress. Soil microbial biomass and PLFA profiles shifted least in the Guangxi soil with the hottest temperature history and most in the Heilongjiang soil with the coldest temperature, indicating that the distribution of free-living microorganisms is influenced by climatic factors. The majority of soil microorganisms coming from the hot regions are more adapted to high temperature (35°C) compared to those from the cold area. There are some regular changes of PLFA profiles when increasing incubation temperature to 35°C. However, the effect of incubation temperature on soil microbial community structure was inconclusive. As PLFA profile community structure is the phenotypic community structure. Genotype experiments are required to be done in future studies for the better understanding of soil microbes in different climate regions with concerning temperature variation.


With the increasing incubation temperature, soil microbial biomass and PLFA profiles shifted most in the soil with the coldest temperature history and least in the soil with the hottest temperature. History does matter in determining soil microbial dynamics when facing thermal stress.

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This work was jointly supported by the National Basic Research Program of China (2005CB121104), and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (40671092, 40425007). We would like to thank Richard H Bromilow for editing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jianming Xu.

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Responsible editor: Chengrong Chen

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Wu, Y., Yu, X., Wang, H. et al. Does history matter? Temperature effects on soil microbial biomass and community structure based on the phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis. J Soils Sediments 10, 223–230 (2010).

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  • History
  • Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis
  • Soil microbial biomass
  • Soil microbial community
  • Temperature