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Effects of elevated temperature on microbial breakdown of seagrass leaf and tea litter biomass

Abstract

Seagrass ecosystems are globally-significant ‘blue carbon’ sinks; however, there is concern that this capacity will decline if rising ocean temperatures accelerate microbial decomposition. Decomposition of plant litter is a key process in the global carbon cycle—it influences how much carbon is available for sequestration. Therefore, understanding the biogeochemistry underlying decomposition is essential to predicting the capacity of seagrass ecosystems to act as carbon sinks in the future. Here, we tracked the breakdown of standardised and natural litter of varying chemical recalcitrance (rooibos tea > seagrass leaves > green tea) combined with highly-sensitive microsensor technology to test (a) how elevated water temperatures affect short-term microbial turnover, and (b) provide novel information on how the decay dynamics of the tea litter compare to those of natural litter. We found that increased temperatures (+ 5–10 °C) boosted microbial activity for all substrates, exhibited as enhanced decay, oxygen consumption and sulphate reduction. Within the 1-month experiment, the green tea litter had a rapid Q10 response to the temperature increase, quickly exhausting the resources for microbes, while the response of the rooibos tea and seagrass litters became more apparent toward the end of the experiment. Our results suggest that the tea litters capture a range of decomposition traits and can be compared with natural litter using traditional exponential decay models. The enhanced temperature-driven organic matter turnover, even under anoxic conditions, highlights the vulnerability of fresh litter to microbial attack during the early stages of decay and the potential weakening of blue carbon accumulation rates under future climatic conditions.

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Data availability

Upon acceptance, the data will be made available via Mendeley Data Repository.

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to the volunteers who put in the long hours helping in this project, particularly Grace Waddingham and Pawel Waryszak. The tea litter was provide by Unilever Lipton via the TeaComposition and TeaComposition H2O initiatives.

Funding

The research was supported by grants from the Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (STT), the Carlsberg Foundation (CF16-0899; KEB), and an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant DP200100575 (PM).

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STT, KEB and PM designed the research. STT and KEB performed the experiments. STT processed and analysed the data with inputs from KEB. All authors contributed with manuscript writing and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Stacey M. Trevathan-Tackett.

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Trevathan-Tackett, S.M., Brodersen, K.E. & Macreadie, P.I. Effects of elevated temperature on microbial breakdown of seagrass leaf and tea litter biomass. Biogeochemistry 151, 171–185 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-020-00715-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-020-00715-1

Keywords

  • Detritus
  • Inundation
  • Remineralisation
  • Sulphate reduction
  • Tea bag index
  • Warming