Effects of Past and Future CO2 on Grassland Soil Carbon and Microbial Ecology
Rising atmospheric CO2 concentration, currently about 390 ppm, causes climate change and is expected to reach 500 ppm or higher this century due to human activities. Soils are the largest terrestrial pool of carbon, and changes in soil carbon storage due to plant and microbial activities could affect atmospheric CO2 levels. This dissertation studies soil carbon and microbial responses to an experimental preindustrial-to-future CO2 gradient (250-515 ppm) in a grassland ecosystem. Two contrasting soil types are studied in the gradient, providing insight on how natural ecosystem variation modifies CO2 effects.
Although total soil organic carbon (SOC) did not change with CO2 treatment after four growing seasons, fast-cycling SOC pools did respond to CO2, particularly in the black clay soil. Microbial biomass increased 18% and microbial activity increased 30% across the CO2 gradient in the black clay, but neither factor changed with CO2 in the sandy loam. Similarly a one-year laboratory soil incubation showed that a fast-cycling SOC pool increased 75% across the CO2 gradient in the black clay. Size fractionation of SOC showed that coarse POM-C, the youngest and most labile fraction, increased four-fold across the CO2 gradient in the black clay, while it increased 50% across the gradient in the sandy loam. CO2 enrichment in this grassland increased the fast-cycling soil organic carbon pool as in other elevated CO2 studies, but only in the black clay soil.
CO2 also induced changes in microbial community composition, and we explored the functional consequences in a microcosm experiment. Soil collected in the third growing season of CO2 treatment was used to inoculate Indiangrass seedlings grown in the lab. The elevated CO2 soil inoculum had higher microbial biomass C/N (C/N = 21) than the subambient CO2 soil inoculum (C/N = 16), suggesting a difference in community composition. Mean plant height in elevated CO2 soil inoculum (475 ppm) was 57% greater than in subambient CO2 soil inoculum (300 ppm), but the difference was not statistically significant. Similarly, total leaf N from plants in elevated CO2 soil was 28% greater on average than in subambient CO2 soil, but not significantly different. CO2-induced microbial effects on plant growth were either negligible or occurred at finer microbial taxonomic levels, making them difficult to resolve at the whole-community level.
Soil fungi decompose soil organic matter, and studying fungal community responses to CO2 could improve our understanding of soil carbon responses. We studied fungal communities in the CO2 gradient using Sanger sequencing and pyrosequencing of rDNA. As in our soil C study, fungal community responses to CO2 were mostly linear, and occurred mostly in the black clay soil. Fungal species richness increased linearly with CO2 treatment in the black clay. The relative abundance of Chytridiomycota (chytrids) increased linearly with CO2 in the black clay, while the relative abundance of Glomeromycota (arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi) increased linearly with CO2 in the sandy loam. Increased labile C availability at elevated CO2 and/or decreased inorganic N may explain the increase in fungal species richness and Chytridiomycota abundance in the black clay, while increased P limitation may explain the stimulation of Glomeromycota at elevated CO2 in the sandy loam. Across both soils, fungal species richness increased linearly with soil respiration, an index of decomposition rate (p = 0.01, R2 = 0.46). Adding fungal species may have improved decomposition efficiency, but it is also possible that species richness and decomposition increased due to another factor such as C quantity. Soil type strongly structured both fungal community and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal community composition.
Together, these studies suggest that soil C and fungal community responses to CO2 were mostly linear, and were most apparent in the black clay soil. Soil type strongly influenced fungal community composition as well as which phyla responded to CO2. Therefore, soil type could be a useful addition to predictions of soil carbon and microbial responses to future CO2 levels.
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