Research Article: Biotic and Abiotic Properties Mediating Plant Diversity Effects on Soil Microbial Communities in an Experimental Grassland

Date Published: May 9, 2014

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Markus Lange, Maike Habekost, Nico Eisenhauer, Christiane Roscher, Holger Bessler, Christof Engels, Yvonne Oelmann, Stefan Scheu, Wolfgang Wilcke, Ernst-Detlef Schulze, Gerd Gleixner, Gabriele Berg.


Plant diversity drives changes in the soil microbial community which may result in alterations in ecosystem functions. However, the governing factors between the composition of soil microbial communities and plant diversity are not well understood. We investigated the impact of plant diversity (plant species richness and functional group richness) and plant functional group identity on soil microbial biomass and soil microbial community structure in experimental grassland ecosystems. Total microbial biomass and community structure were determined by phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) analysis. The diversity gradient covered 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and 60 plant species and 1, 2, 3 and 4 plant functional groups (grasses, legumes, small herbs and tall herbs). In May 2007, soil samples were taken from experimental plots and from nearby fields and meadows. Beside soil texture, plant species richness was the main driver of soil microbial biomass. Structural equation modeling revealed that the positive plant diversity effect was mainly mediated by higher leaf area index resulting in higher soil moisture in the top soil layer. The fungal-to-bacterial biomass ratio was positively affected by plant functional group richness and negatively by the presence of legumes. Bacteria were more closely related to abiotic differences caused by plant diversity, while fungi were more affected by plant-derived organic matter inputs. We found diverse plant communities promoted faster transition of soil microbial communities typical for arable land towards grassland communities. Although some mechanisms underlying the plant diversity effect on soil microorganisms could be identified, future studies have to determine plant traits shaping soil microbial community structure. We suspect differences in root traits among different plant communities, such as root turnover rates and chemical composition of root exudates, to structure soil microbial communities.

Partial Text

The soil microbial community holds a central position in ecosystem processes like carbon and nitrogen cycling (e.g., [1], [2]). The performance and shape of soil microbial communities on one hand depend on soil properties, such as pH, temperature, texture and moisture [3]–[6], but on the other hand the soil microbial community is closely linked to plant communities through complex interactions [7]–[12]. Plants affect the soil microbial community through biomass production, litter quality, seasonal variability of litter production, root-shoot carbon allocation and root exudates [13]–[15]. In turn, soil microbial communities mineralize organic matter and enhance nutrient release by mineral weathering. Both processes increase the availability of nutrients enhancing plant growth [16], [17] and consequently accelerate the matter flow between the aboveground and belowground parts of ecosystems.

In the framework of the Jena Experiment we investigated how soil microbial communities are affected by plant diversity and the underlying mechanisms of these effects. In grassland with manipulated plant species richness and number of plant functional groups we showed that the soil microbial communities are strongly linked to plant diversity. Corresponding to hypothesis 1, the positive plant diversity effect on total microbial biomass was mainly driven by improved microclimatic conditions, while we found only a minor influence of the amount of root litter inputs on the soil microbes. Furthermore, number of plant functional groups and the plant functional composition, in particular the presence of legumes, highly impact the microbial community composition, referring to hypothesis 2. Below, we will discuss in detail, how plant diversity drives the soil microbial community.

We identified changes in microclimatic conditions, in particular increased soil moisture, as a main mechanism how plant diversity affects soil microbial biomass in the topsoil. Furthermore, the results indicate that shifts in the microbial community composition, namely in the F:B ratio, heavily rely on differences in the quality and quantity of root exudates. Changes in soil microbial biomass with plant diversity suggest that microbial communities of the established grassland systems develop towards permanent meadows, but that reaching the state of these meadows takes decades. Notably, however, differences in microbial biomass indicate that high diverse plant communities promote faster transition towards permanent meadows indicating that plant diversity is a key factor for restoring functional grassland systems on former arable land.