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Soil Microbial Community Response to Land Use Change in an Agricultural Landscape of Western Kenya


Tropical agroecosystems are subject to degradation processes such as losses in soil carbon, nutrient depletion, and reduced water holding capacity that occur rapidly resulting in a reduction in soil fertility that can be difficult to reverse. In this research, a polyphasic methodology has been used to investigate changes in microbial community structure and function in a series of tropical soils in western Kenya. These soils have different land usage with both wooded and agricultural soils at Kakamega and Ochinga, whereas at Ochinga, Leuro, Teso, and Ugunja a replicated field experiment compared traditional continuous maize cropping against an improved N-fixing fallow system. For all sites, principal component analysis of 16S rRNA gene denaturing gradient gel electrophoresis (DGGE) profiles revealed that soil type was the key determinant of total bacterial community structure, with secondary variation found between wooded and agricultural soils. Similarly, phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis also separated wooded from agricultural soils, primarily on the basis of higher abundance of monounsaturated fatty acids, anteiso- and iso-branched fatty acids, and methyl-branched fatty acids in the wooded soils. At Kakamega and Ochinga wooded soils had between five 5 and 10-fold higher levels of soil carbon and microbial biomass carbon than agricultural soils from the same location, whereas total enzyme activities were also lower in the agricultural sites. Soils with woody vegetation had a lower percentage of phosphatase activity and higher cellulase and chitinase activities than the agricultural soils. BIOLOG analysis showed woodland soils to have the greatest substrate diversity. Throughout the study the two functional indicators (enzyme activity and BIOLOG), however, showed lower specificity with respect to soil type and land usage than did the compositional indicators (DGGE and PLFA). In the field experiment comparing two types of maize cropping, both the maize yields and total microbial biomass were found to increase with the fallow system. Moreover, 16S rRNA gene and PLFA analyses revealed shifts in the total microbial community in response to the different management regimes, indicating that deliberate management of soils can have considerable impact on microbial community structure and function in tropical soils.

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Drs. Bossio and Girvan contributed equally to this work. The authors thank Margaret Edwards, James Rowe, Moses Mathuva, and Edith Anyango for their contributions to this research. We are grateful for the financial support of this research by the Rockefeller Foundation (Grant Number 2001-FS-089), the IMPALA project funded by the European Union (Grant Number ICAS4-CT-2000-30011), the Government of Italy, Syngenta, and Unilever.

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Bossio, D., Girvan, M., Verchot, L. et al. Soil Microbial Community Response to Land Use Change in an Agricultural Landscape of Western Kenya. Microb Ecol 49, 50–62 (2005).

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  • Microbial Biomass
  • Microbial Community Structure
  • Microbial Biomass Carbon
  • Total Enzyme Activity
  • Continuous Maize