Biology and Fertility of Soils

, Volume 51, Issue 5, pp 525–533 | Cite as

Drying and substrate concentrations interact to inhibit decomposition of carbon substrates added to combusted Inceptisols from a boreal forest

  • Donovan P. German
  • Steven D. Allison
Original Paper


Climate change is expected to alter the mechanisms controlling soil organic matter (SOM) stabilization. Under climate change, soil warming and drying could affect the enzymatic mechanisms that control SOM turnover and dependence on substrate concentration. Here, we used a greenhouse climate manipulation in a mature boreal forest soil to test two specific hypotheses: (1) Rates of decomposition decline at lower substrate concentrations, and (2) reductions in soil moisture disproportionately constrain the degradation of low-concentration substrates. Using constructed soil cores, we measured decomposition rates of two polymeric substrates, starch and cellulose, as well as enzyme activities associated with degradation of these substrates. The greenhouse manipulation increased temperature by 0.8 °C and reduced moisture in the constructed cores by up to 90 %. We rejected our first hypothesis, as the rate of starch decomposition did not decrease with declining starch concentration under control conditions, but we did find support for hypothesis two: Drying led to lower decomposition rates for low-concentration starch. We observed a threefold reduction in soil respiration rates in bulk soils in the greenhouses over a 4-month period, but the C losses from the constructed cores did not vary among our treatments. Activities of enzymes that degrade cellulose and starch were elevated in the greenhouse treatments, which may have compensated for moisture constraints on the degradation of the common substrate (i.e., cellulose) in our constructed cores. This study confirms that substrate decomposition can be concentration-dependent and suggests that climate change effects on soil moisture could reduce rates of decomposition in well-drained boreal forest soils lacking permafrost.


Microbial decomposition Starch Cellulose Carbon cycling Carbon dioxide Extracellular enzymes 



We thank Stephanie Kivlin, Jennifer Talbot, Darleen Masiak, Kathleen Marcelo, and Heros Amerkhanian for help in the field and/or laboratory. We also thank two anonymous reviewers for insightful comments that improved the manuscript. This study was funded by the University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellowship and UC Irvine Laboratory Start Up Funds (to DPG), and a grant from the NSF Advancing Theory in Biology program (to SDA).


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA
  2. 2.Department of Earth System ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

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