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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2008

Functional microbial diversity of the railway track bed

Cederlund, Harald; Thierfelder, Tomas; Stenstrom, John


Railways constitute relatively unexplored microbial habitats. Little is known about the amounts, activities or distributions of microorganisms and their associated heterotrophic capabilities on railway embankments. The aim of this study was to investigate the microbiology of two Swedish railway tracks in order to fill some of the gaps in the available information. We estimated microbial biomass by means of substrate-induced respiration, microbial activity as basal respiration (BR) and as a kinetically derived parameter (r) hypothesised to correspond to the active fraction of the microbial biomass. It was confirmed that the microbial biomass and activity were low as compared with agricultural soils and that their distributions were distinctly positively skewed. Spatial Kriging revealed that covariance structures were sustained on a scale smaller than the employed sampling grid (<1 m). Substrate richness (SR), as measured with Biolog ECO plates, was used as a quantitative measure of functional diversity. SR correlated to microbial activity and SIR, indicating that functional traits were lacking where the microbial biomass was low or less active. The dependence of microbial activities on basic soil characteristics were inferred by separately designed general linear models. Water content was found to be the most important factor moderating basal respiration and functional diversity, whereas the organic matter content was identified as the most important covariate for SIR. Multivariate analysis of the carbon source utilisation patterns of the Biolog plates with equivalent average well-colour development revealed homogenous substrate utilisation among samples. This indicates that the microbial functional potential is randomly distributed in the railway track bed. In combination, our findings imply that the ecosystem functionality of railway embankments may be seriously hampered as compared with agricultural soils. This has consequences for the risk assessment of herbicides applied to railways. (C) 2008 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


railways; microbial biomass; functional diversity; biolog; substrate richness; generalised linear model

Published in

Science of the Total Environment
2008, Volume: 397, number: 1-3, pages: 205-214