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Functional importance and diversity of fungi during standing grass litter decomposition

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Although microbial participation in litter decomposition is widely known within terrestrial soils, the role and significance of microorganisms during the aerial standing litter phase of decomposition remains poorly investigated. We examined the fungi inhabiting standing leaf litter of Schizachyrium scoparium and Schizachyrium tenerum in a Longleaf Pine savanna ecosystem and estimated their contribution to litter decomposition. We identified fungal phylotypes associated with leaf litter and quantified leaf C mass loss, fungal biomass production, and microbial respiration during decomposition. These data were used to construct budgets estimating C flow into and through fungi. Significant losses in S. scoparium (55%) and S. tenerum (67%) leaf C mass were observed during standing decomposition along with concomitant increases in fungal biomass, which reached a maximum of 36 and 33 mgC/g detrital C, respectively. Cumulative fungal production during decomposition totaled 99 ± 6 mgC/g initial detrital C in S. scoparium and 73 ± 5 mgC/g initial detrital C in S. tenerum, indicating that 18 and 11% of the litter C was converted into fungal biomass, respectively. Corresponding estimates of cumulative fungal respiration totaled 106 ± 7 and 174 ± 11 mgC/g initial detrital C in S. scoparium and S. tenerum, respectively. Next generation sequencing identified several fungal phylotypes, with the majority of sequences belonging to the Ascomycota (Dothideomycetes) and Basidiomycota (Agaricomycetes). Fungal phylotypes were similar between litter species and changed over time, showing a successional pattern. These findings extend our understanding of fungal processes to standing litter in terrestrial ecosystems, and highlight the quantitative importance of fungi in C cycling processes.

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Data availability

Data included in this manuscript may be found in the Dryad Digital Repository ( Fungal sequence data generated from this project are available in the NCBI Sequence Reads Archive under BioProject PRJNA683919.


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We would like to extend our gratitude to Dr. Gene Saucier for allowing access to his property where this study was conducted. We also thank Stephanie Koury for providing assistance in both the field and laboratory. This research was supported from grants from the National Science Foundation (DBI 0923063) and (EPS-0909787) through a subaward from Mississippi State University (190200.362492.05). The UMMC Molecular and Genomics Facility utilized in the study is supported, in part, by funds from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), including the Mississippi IDea Networks of Biomedical Science (INBRE) (P20GM103476), Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience – Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (CPN)-COBRE (P30GM103328), Obesity, Cardiorenal and Metabolic Diseases—COBRE (P20GM104357) and Mississippi Center of Excellence in Perinatal Research (MS-CEPR)-COBRE (P20GM121334).

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KAK and JSB conceived the design of the study. The study was completed by JSB, MLB, RAS, CRJ, and KAK. Statistical analysis and writing were completed by MLB, HMH, CRJ and KAK. All authors provided feedback during manuscript preparation.

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Correspondence to Kevin A. Kuehn.

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Communicated by Pascal A. Niklaus.

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Lodato, M.B., Boyette, J.S., Smilo, R.A. et al. Functional importance and diversity of fungi during standing grass litter decomposition. Oecologia 195, 499–512 (2021).

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