Research Article: Effects of Plant Diversity, Functional Group Composition, and Fertilization on Soil Microbial Properties in Experimental Grassland

Date Published: May 4, 2015

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Tanja Strecker, Romain L. Barnard, Pascal A. Niklaus, Michael Scherer-Lorenzen, Alexandra Weigelt, Stefan Scheu, Nico Eisenhauer, Andrew Hector.


Loss of biodiversity and increased nutrient inputs are two of the most crucial anthropogenic factors driving ecosystem change. Although both received considerable attention in previous studies, information on their interactive effects on ecosystem functioning is scarce. In particular, little is known on how soil biota and their functions are affected by combined changes in plant diversity and fertilization.

We investigated the effects of plant diversity, functional community composition, and fertilization on the biomass and respiration of soil microbial communities in a long-term biodiversity experiment in semi-natural grassland (Jena Experiment). Plant species richness enhanced microbial basal respiration and microbial biomass, but did not significantly affect microbial specific respiration. In contrast, the presence of legumes and fertilization significantly decreased microbial specific respiration, without altering microbial biomass. The effect of legumes was superimposed by fertilization as indicated by a significant interaction between the presence of legumes and fertilization. Further, changes in microbial stoichiometry (C-to-N ratio) and specific respiration suggest the presence of legumes to reduce N limitation of soil microorganisms and to modify microbial C use efficiency.

Our study highlights the role of plant species and functional group diversity as well as interactions between plant community composition and fertilizer application for soil microbial functions. Our results suggest soil microbial stoichiometry to be a powerful indicator of microbial functioning under N limited conditions. Although our results support the notion that plant diversity and fertilizer application independently affect microbial functioning, legume effects on microbial N limitation were superimposed by fertilization, indicating significant interactions between the functional composition of plant communities and nutrient inputs for soil processes.

Partial Text

Loss of biodiversity and increased nutrient inputs are two of the most crucial anthropogenic impacts on Earth’s biosphere [1,2]. Many studies have investigated the effects of species loss and eutrophication on ecosystem functioning; however, usually these factors have been considered in isolation. Knowledge of how these factors interactively influence ecosystem functions, such as decomposition and element cycling, is incomplete (but see e.g. [3,4]).

Soil water content and aboveground plant biomass were significantly increased by plant species richness (F = 13.12, P<0.001, R2 = 0.16, and F = 58.45, P< 0.001, R2 = 0.43, respectively). Moreover, plant species richness significantly increased basal respiration and MBCSIR (Fig 1a and 1b; Table 1). Aboveground plant biomass and soil water content correlated positively with MBN (plant biomass: F = 8.31, P<0.01, R2 = 0.09,Fig 1c; soil water: F = 89.35, P<0.001, R2 = 0.53) and MBCSIR (plant biomass: F = 10.88, P<0.01, R2 = 0.12, Fig 1d; soil water: F = 47.18, P<0.001, R2 = 0.37). Nevertheless, plant diversity effects on soil microbial respiration and MBCSIR remained (marginally) significant even if accounting for the effect of aboveground plant biomass (respiration: F = 17.77, P<0.001; microbial biomass: F = 7.40, P<0.01) or soil water content (respiration: F = 5.53, P<0.05; microbial biomass: F = 3.23, P<0.1), indicating that plant diversity effects on soil microbial properties cannot be fully explained by aboveground plant biomass production and soil water content. Plant functional group richness significantly enhanced basal respiration, but only when fitted before plant species richness (Fig 1e). We investigated effects of plant community properties and fertilization on soil microbial biomass, respiration and C use efficiency. Plant community properties significantly affected soil microbial activity (respiration) and biomass, while fertilization affected microbial activity and C use efficiency (specific respiration). In contrast to our hypothesis, effects of plant diversity (species and functional group richness) were independent of fertilization. Our results highlight the importance of plant diversity for increased basal respiration and soil microbial biomass and are in line with previous studies [4,12,22]. Plant functional groups, legumes, grasses, and small herbs contrastingly affected soil microbial properties. The significant correlation between soil water content and plant species richness as well as the weaker plant species richness effect when fitted after soil water content suggests that effects of plant diversity on soil microbial respiration and biomass are mediated, at least in part, by changes in soil water content [50,51]. Our microbial stoichiometry results (C-to-N ratio) suggest that legumes reduced N limitation of soil microorganisms, and that under N limitation microbial stoichiometry determines the functioning of soil microbial communities (as indicated by changes in microbial specific respiration). Additionally, the ratio between fungal and bacterial biomass may have shifted towards bacteria in the presence of legumes as fungal biomass is known to decrease in presence of legumes and with increased N input [52]. Overall, plant diversity beneficially affected soil microorganisms, likely due to changes in rhizodeposition, plant productivity, and soil moisture. Our results underline the importance of plant functional groups, in particular legumes, for soil microbial functioning and stoichiometry. Thus, promoting high plant diversity in managed grasslands, by including certain plant functional groups, is likely to beneficially affect microbially-driven ecosystem functions such as decomposition and element cycling. Generally, effects of plant diversity and fertilization were independent, while the effect of legumes on microbial C use efficiency was modified by fertilization. Both legumes and fertilization alleviated N limitation of soil microorganisms, but this likely was due to different mechanisms with legumes acting via provisioning of organic N, and fertilization acting via provisioning of inorganic N and decreasing rhizosphere priming effects. Our results suggest that both fertilizer application and the presence of legumes reduce soil microbial N limitation, and thereby modulate soil microbial stoichiometry and functioning. To mechanistically understand the observed response of microorganisms root-derived resources need closer investigation.   Source: