Functional response of the soil microbial community to forecasted rainfall shifts
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Climate models forecast lower and less frequent precipitation in the next 50 years. This is especially pronounced in the central United States, where Texas is expected to lose a week’s worth of rain every summer. Water availability is a primary driver of carbon flux in terrestrial ecosystems – controlling photosynthesis and organic matter decomposition. Thus, under proposed rainfall shifts, understanding the potential ecosystem response is key to predicting the future of terrestrial productivity. Terrestrial nutrient cycling is also driven by microbial saprotrophs, which are the chief decomposers of organic matter. Understanding the microbial response to rain shifts is key in predicting the ecosystem response. Research supports both microbial community specialization to local environment, and that the microbial communities may have the ability to rapidly acclimate to environmental change. To address this question of microbial response, we used a steep natural rainfall gradient along the Edwards Plateau in central Texas. The Edwards Plateau is an ideal field site in which to test these ideas because nearly identical grassland habitat and soils are found across its entirety, while mean annual precipitation ranges from 45 cm to 91 cm. To understand how soil microbial communities varied as a result of historical rainfall differences, we divided the gradient into four isoclines based on precipitation (46-56 cm, 56-66 cm, 66-76 cm, and 76-86 cm), and examined soil and soil microbial community characteristics at three sites in each isocline. We further used soils from the same sites for a reciprocal soil moisture experiment, where we asked how soil microbial communities responded to altered moisture conditions. Using a full factorial design, soils from each site in each isocline were exposed to one of four soil moisture treatments: soil moisture from the ‘home’ isocline and the three other ‘away’ isoclines. The moisture treatments were maintained for one year. Microbial respiration was measured at regular intervals throughout the experiment; fungal hyphal abundance and inorganic nitrogen were measured at the final harvest. The soils collected from the gradient decreased in both soil moisture and hyphal abundance from the wet to the dry end of the gradient, but there was no trend in inorganic nitrogen. In the reciprocal moisture experiment, microbial CO2 respiration was affected by both home isocline and soil moisture treatment. Drier sites had a narrower response to wetter treatments and did not achieve the same activity as wetter sites regardless of soil moisture treatment. In contrast, soils from the wettest isocline experienced severe reductions in activity with drying, with activity at the driest moisture treatment below that found in soils that were from the driest isocline. These patterns are consistent with some degree of local specialization, which may constrain the ability of microbial communities to rapidly acclimate to altered precipitation regimes. This experiment did not include immigration, however, and shifts in community composition in the presence of dispersal may be able to counteract local specialization. Given expected future increases in drought intensity microbial decomposition activity is likely to decrease and local specialization may create a lag in acclimation to the new condition. Thus, local specialization of microbial communities should be considered when predicting ecosystem responses to future climate change and their potential feedbacks to ecosystem productivity and carbon storage.