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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2006

Ecological consequences of carbon substrate identity and diversity in a laboratory study

Orwin KH, Wardle DA, Greenfield LG


Plants return a wide range of carbon (C) Substrates to the soil system. The decomposition rate of these substrates is determined by their chemical nature, yet few studies have examined the relative ecological role of specific substrates (i.e., substrate identity) or mixtures Of Substrates. Carbon substrate identity and diversity may alter soil chemistry and soil community composition, resulting in changes in belowground ecosystem functions such as decomposition and nutrient transfer, creating feedbacks that may affect plant growth and the aboveground community. A laboratory experiment was set up in which eight C substrates of varying chemical complexity were added to a base soil singly, in pairs, fours, or with all eight together every four days over a 92-day period. After 92 days these soils were analyzed for changes in chemistry, microbial community structure, and components of ecosystem functioning. The identity of the added C substrates significantly affected soil chemistry, microbial basal and substrate-induced respiration, and soil microbial community structure measured by either the catabolic response profile (CRP) technique or phospholipid fatty acid composition. These belowground changes strongly affected the ability of the soil microflora to decompose cellulose paper, probably because of differential effects of the C substrates on soil energy supplies and enzyme activities. The addition of C substrates to soils also reduced plant growth compared to the unamended control soil, but less so in soils amended with a tannin than those amended with other substrates. Carbon substrate diversity effects saturated at low diversity levels, tended to have neutral or negative effects on ecosystem functions, and depended strongly on which C substrates were added. It increased CRP compound use but had little effect on other measures of the soil microbial community. Overall, results showed that the chemical nature of C substrates added to soil, and sometimes their diversity, can affect the soil microbial community and soil chemistry, which subsequently affect other ecosystem processes such as decomposition and plant growth. The identity and diversity of substrates that plants add to soil may therefore have important consequences for both above- and belowground ecosystem functions

Published in

2006, volume: 87, number: 3, pages: 580-593

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Forest Vegetation Ecology
Orwin, Kate H
Landcare Research
Greenfield, Laurence G

UKÄ Subject classification

Forest Science

Publication Identifiers


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