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Biodiversity at the plant–soil interface: microbial abundance and community structure respond to litter mixing

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The interactive effects of diversity in plants and microbial communities at the litter interface are not well understood. Mixtures of plant litter from different species often decompose differently than when individual species decompose alone. Previously, we found that litter mixtures of multiple conifers decomposed more rapidly than expected, but litter mixtures that included conifer and aspen litter did not. Understanding the mechanisms underlying these diversity effects may help explain existing anomalous decay dynamics and provide a glimpse into the elusive linkage between plant diversity and the fungi and bacteria that carry out decomposition. We examined the microbial communities on litter from individual plant species decomposing both in mixture and alone. We assessed two main hypotheses to explain how the decomposer community could stimulate mixed-litter decomposition above predicted rates: either by being more abundant, or having a different or more diverse community structure than when microbes decompose a single species of litter. Fungal, bacterial and total phospholipid fatty acid microbial biomass increased by over 40% on both conifer and aspen litter types in mixture, and microbial community composition changed significantly when plant litter types were mixed. Microbial diversity also increased with increasing plant litter diversity. While our data provide support for both the increased abundance hypothesis and the altered microbial community hypothesis, microbial changes do not translate to predictably altered litter decomposition and may only produce synergisms when mixed litters are functionally similar.

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A Smithsonian Institution Fellowship and Villanova University funded S. K. C. during part of the development of this manuscript. Partial funding for this research was provided by McIntire-Stennis appropriations to the NAU School of Forestry and G. S. N. We acknowledge Jennifer Schweitzer, Adam Langley, and Jennifer Pett-Ridge for friendly reviews of this manuscript. We thank George Koch and Steve Hart for guidance and lab facilities. We thank Steve Overby and particularly Dana Erickson at the USFS Rocky Mountain Research Station for assistance in PLFA extraction and analysis. Kitty Gehring, Bruce Hungate, Maribeth Watwood, and Tom Whitham provided additional help with this manuscript. Arisia Lee and Dan Guido assisted with lab work. All experiments we performed correspond with the laws of the United States of America.

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Correspondence to Samantha K. Chapman.

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Communicated by Stephan Hattenschwiler.

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Chapman, S.K., Newman, G.S. Biodiversity at the plant–soil interface: microbial abundance and community structure respond to litter mixing. Oecologia 162, 763–769 (2010).

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  • Bacteria
  • Fungi
  • Litter mixing
  • Litter decomposition
  • Microbial community