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Research article2022Peer reviewedOpen access

Potential energetic return on investment positively correlated with overall soil microbial activity

Dufour, Louis; Herrmann, Anke; Leloup, Julie; Przybylski, Cédric; Foti, Ludovic; Abbadie, Luc; Nunan, Naoise


Microbial communities are a critical component of the soil carbon (C) cycle as they are responsible for the decomposition of both organic inputs from plants and of soil organic C. However, there is still no consensus about how to explicitly represent their role in terrestrial C cycling. The objective of the study was to determine how the molecular and energetic properties of readily available organic matter affect the metabolic activity of the resident microbial communities in soils. This was achieved by cross-amending six soils, taken from woodland and grassland sites along an urban pressure gradient, with organic matter extracted from the same six soils and measuring heat dissipated due to the increase in microbial metabolic activity. The energetic properties of the organic matter were used to estimate a potential energetic return on investment (ROI) that microbial communities could obtain from the transformation of the organic matter. Specifically, the ROI was calculated as the ratio between the total net energy available (delta E) and the weighted average standard state Gibbs energies of oxidation half reactions of organic C (delta G?(Cox)). delta E was measured as the heat of combustion using bomb calorimetry. delta G?(Cox )was estimated using the average nominal oxidation state of C (NOSC) of the molecular species in the organic matter. The overall metabolic activity of microbial communities was positively related to the potential energetic return on investment but no significant relationship was found with the molecular diversity of organic matter. The temporal differences in metabolism across soils indicate that bacterial communities do not exploit the potential energetic return on investment in the same way: the suburban grassland communities responded more rapidly and the suburban woodland communities more slowly to the organic matter additions than the other communities. The urban gradient did not affect the properties of the molecular or energetic properties of the organic matter nor the response of the microbial communities to the organic matter additions. However, the organic matter from the grassland soils caused soils to dissipate 36.4% more heat than organic matter from the woodland soils. The metabolic response was also more rapid after the addition of grassland organic matter: the time taken for half the heat to be dissipated was 6.4 h after the addition of grassland organic matter and 6.1 h after the addition of woodland organic matter. Overall, our results suggest that microbial communities preferentially use organic matter with a high potential energetic return on investment, i.e. organic molecules that do not require high cost associated with catalysis whilst yielding a high net energetic benefit.


Microbial reaction energetics; Community composition; Ultra high resolution mass spectrometry; Calorimetry; Organic carbon

Published in

Soil Biology and Biochemistry
2022, Volume: 173, article number: 108800