Plant and Soil

, Volume 165, Issue 1, pp 55–65

Responses of soil biota to elevated atmospheric carbon dioxide

  • Elizabeth G. O'Neill
Soil Biota

DOI: 10.1007/BF00009962

Cite this article as:
O'Neill, E.G. Plant Soil (1994) 165: 55. doi:10.1007/BF00009962


Increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could have dramatic effects upon terrestrial ecosystems including changes in ecosystem structure, nutrient cycling rates, net primary production, C source-sink relationships and successional patterns. All of these potential changes will be constrained to some degree by below ground processes and mediated by responses of soil biota to indirect effects of CO2 enrichment. A review of our current state of knowledge regarding responses of soil biota is presented, covering responses of mycorrhizae, N-fixing bacteria and actinomycetes, soil microbiota, plant pathogens, and soil fauna. Emphasis will be placed on consequences to biota of increasing C input through the rhizosphere and resulting feedbacks to above ground systems. Rising CO2 may also result in altered nutrient concentrations of plant litter, potentially changing decomposition rates through indirect effects upon decomposer communities. Thus, this review will also cover current information on decomposition of litter produced at elevated CO2.


Predictably, the responses of soil biota to CO2 enrichment and the degree of experimental emphasis on them increase with proximity to, and intimacy with, roots. Symbiotic associations are all stimulated to some degree. Total plant mycorrhization increases with elevated CO2. VAM fungi increase proportionately with fine root length/mass increase. ECM fungi, however, exhibit greater colonization per unit root length/mass at elevated CO2 than at current atmospheric levels. Total N-fixation per plant increases in all species examined, although the mechanisms of increase, as well as the eventual benefit to the host relative to N uptake may vary. Microbial responses are unclear. The assumption that changes in root exudation will drive increased mineralization and facilitate nutrient uptake should be examined experimentally, in light of recent models. Microbial results to date suggest that metabolic activity (measured as changes in process rates) is stimulated by root C input, rather than population size (measured by cell or colony counts). Insufficient evidence exists to predict responses of either soil-borne plant pathogens or soil fauna (i.e., food web responses). These are areas requiring attention, the first for its potential to limit ecosystem production through disease and the second because of its importance to nutrient cycling processes. Preliminary data on foliar litter decomposition suggests that neither nutrient ratios nor decomposition rates will be affected by rising CO2. This is another important area that may be better understood as the number of longer term studies with more realistic CO2 exposures increase. Evidence continues to mount that C fixation increases with CO2 enrichment and that the bulk of this C enters the belowground component of ecosystems. The global fate and effects of this additional C may affect all hierarchical levels, from organisms to ecosystems, and will be largely determined by responses of soil biota.

Key words

CO2 enrichment decomposition mycorrhizae nitrogen fixation rhizosphere soil biota soil fauna 

Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth G. O'Neill
    • 1
  1. 1.Environmental Sciences DivisionOak Ridge National LaboratoryOak RidgeUSA

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