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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2021

Substrate spatial heterogeneity reduces soil microbial activity

Shi, Andong; Chakrawal, Arjun; Manzoni, Stefano; Fischer, Benjamin M.C.; Nunan, Naoise; Herrmann, Anke;


Soil heterogeneity influences microbial access to substrates and creates habitats varying in substrate concentrations, thus leading to local variations in carbon (C) dynamics. Based on theoretical considerations, we expected that higher heterogeneity would decrease microbial activity. To test this hypothesis, we modified substrate spatial heterogeneity using 3D-printed cylinders with four compartments (either preventing or allowing diffusion between compartments). The same total amount of glucose (1.5 mg glucose C per cylinder) was added either to one compartment (highest local concentration, 2.0 mg glucose C g−1 soil, and highest heterogeneity), to two (medium concentration, 1.0 mg glucose C g−1 soil, and intermediate heterogeneity), or to four compartments (lowest local concentration, 0.5 mg glucose C g−1 soil, and equivalent to homogeneous conditions). Thus, we experimentally created a gradient of substrate spatial heterogeneity. The 3D cylinders containing soil were transferred into standard calorimetry ampoules and were incubated in isothermal calorimeters to monitor soil heat dissipation rates as a proxy of soil microbial activity over 51 h at 18 °C. When diffusion among compartments was prevented, the most heterogeneous treatment showed the lowest heat dissipation rates, despite having the highest local substrate concentration. Compared to homogeneous conditions, the heat dissipation rate from the most heterogeneous treatment was 110% lower at the beginning of the experiment (12.7 μJ g−1 soil s−1) and 50% lower when heat dissipation rates reached a peak (72.6 μJ g−1 soil s−1). Moreover, the peak was delayed by approximately 2 h compared to the most homogeneous treatment. When diffusion among compartments was allowed, the effect of substrate spatial heterogeneity on microbial activity was strongly diminished. Our findings emphasize the influence of substrate spatial heterogeneity on soil microbial dynamics, highlighting the importance of including it in C cycling models for a better understanding of soil C dynamics.


Carbon cycling models; Diffusion; Heat dissipation; Scale transition theory; Spatial heterogeneity; Spatial homogeneity

Published in

Soil Biology and Biochemistry

2021, volume: 152, article number: 108068

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Soil and Environment
Chakrawal, Arjun
Stockholm University
Manzoni, Stefano
Stockholm University
Fischer, Benjamin M.C.
Uppsala University
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Soil and Environment
Sorbonne Université
Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Soil and Environment

UKÄ Subject classification

Soil Science

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