Increased microbial growth, biomass, and turnover drive soil organic carbon accumulation at higher plant diversity

Judith Prommer, Tom W. N. Walker, Wolfgang Wanek, Judith Braun, David Zezula, Yuntao Hu, Florian Hofhansl, Andreas Richter

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237 Citations (Scopus)
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Species-rich plant communities have been shown to be more productive and to exhibit increased long-term soil organic carbon (SOC) storage. Soil microorganisms are central to the conversion of plant organic matter into SOC, yet the relationship between plant diversity, soil microbial growth, turnover as well as carbon use efficiency (CUE) and SOC accumulation is unknown. As heterotrophic soil microbes are primarily carbon limited, it is important to understand how they respond to increased plant-derived carbon inputs at higher plant species richness (PSR). We used the long-term grassland biodiversity experiment in Jena, Germany, to examine how microbial physiology responds to changes in plant diversity and how this affects SOC content. The Jena Experiment considers different numbers of species (1–60), functional groups (1–4) as well as functional identity (small herbs, tall herbs, grasses, and legumes). We found that PSR accelerated microbial growth and turnover and increased microbial biomass and necromass. PSR also accelerated microbial respiration, but this effect was less strong than for microbial growth. In contrast, PSR did not affect microbial CUE or biomass-specific respiration. Structural equation models revealed that PSR had direct positive effects on root biomass, and thereby on microbial growth and microbial biomass carbon. Finally, PSR increased SOC content via its positive influence on microbial biomass carbon. We suggest that PSR favors faster rates of microbial growth and turnover, likely due to greater plant productivity, resulting in higher amounts of microbial biomass and necromass that translate into the observed increase in SOC. We thus identify the microbial mechanism linking species-rich plant communities to a carbon cycle process of importance to Earth's climate system
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)669-681
Number of pages13
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number2
Early online date25 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - 5 Feb 2020


  • microbial activity
  • microbial carbon use efficiency
  • microbial necromass
  • microbial turnover
  • plant diversity
  • soil organic carbon


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