Soil respiration is not limited by reductions in microbial biomass during long-term soil incubations
Hannah E. Birge, Richard T. Conant, Ronald F. Follett, Michelle L. Haddix, Sherri J. Morris, Sieglinde S. Snapp, Matthew D. Wallenstein, Eldor A. Paul
Natural Resources Ecology Laboratory, Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1499, USA.
Declining rates of soil respiration are reliably observed during long-term laboratory incubations. However, the cause of this decline is uncertain. We explored different controls on soil respiration to elucidate the drivers of respiration rate declines during long-term soil incubations. Following a long-term (707 day) incubation (30 °C) of soils from two sites (a cultivated and a forested plot at Kellogg Biological Station, Hickory Corners, MI, USA), soils were significantly depleted of both soil carbon and microbial biomass. To test the ability of these carbon- and biomass-depleted (“incubation-depleted”) soils to respire labile organic matter, we exposed soils to a second, 42 day incubation (30 °C) with and without an addition of plant residues. We controlled for soil carbon and microbial biomass depletion by incubating field fresh (“fresh”) soils with and without an amendment of wheat and corn residues. Although respiration was consistently higher in the fresh versus incubation-depleted soil (2 and 1.2 times higher in the fresh cultivated and fresh forested soil, respectively), the ability to respire substrate did not differ between the fresh and incubation-depleted soils. Further, at the completion of the 42 day incubation, levels of microbial biomass in the incubation-depleted soils remained unchanged, while levels of microbial biomass in the field-fresh soil declined to levels similar to that of the incubation-depleted soils. Extra-cellular enzyme pools in the incubation-depleted soils were sometimes slightly reduced and did not respond to addition of labile substrate and did not limit soil respiration. Our results support the idea that available soil organic matter, rather than a lack microbial biomass and extracellular enzymes, limits soil respiration over the course of long-term incubations. That decomposition of both wheat and corn straw residues did not change after major changes in the soil biomass during extended incubation supports the omission of biomass values from biogeochemical models.
Keywords: Soil organic matter (SOM); Respiration; Microbial biomass; Incubation; Extracellular enzymes; Substrate decomposition.