Microbial community utilization of recalcitrant and simple carbon compounds: impact of oak-woodland plant communities

Oecologia. 2004 Jan;138(2):275-84. doi: 10.1007/s00442-003-1419-9. Epub 2003 Nov 12.


Little is known about how the structure of microbial communities impacts carbon cycling or how soil microbial community composition mediates plant effects on C-decomposition processes. We examined the degradation of four (13)C-labeled compounds (starch, xylose, vanillin, and pine litter), quantified rates of associated enzyme activities, and identified microbial groups utilizing the (13)C-labeled substrates in soils under oaks and in adjacent open grasslands. By quantifying increases in non-(13)C-labeled carbon in microbial biomarkers, we were also able to identify functional groups responsible for the metabolism of indigenous soil organic matter. Although microbial community composition differed between oak and grassland soils, the microbial groups responsible for starch, xylose, and vanillin degradation, as defined by (13)C-PLFA, did not differ significantly between oak and grassland soils. Microbial groups responsible for pine litter and SOM-C degradation did differ between the two soils. Enhanced degradation of SOM resulting from substrate addition (priming) was greater in grassland soils, particularly in response to pine litter addition; under these conditions, fungal and Gram+ biomarkers showed more incorporation of SOM-C than did Gram- biomarkers. In contrast, the oak soil microbial community primarily incorporated C from the added substrates. More (13)C (from both simple and recalcitrant sources) was incorporated into the Gram- biomarkers than Gram+ biomarkers despite the fact that the Gram+ group generally comprised a greater portion of the bacterial biomass than did markers for the Gram- group. These experiments begin to identify components of the soil microbial community responsible for decomposition of different types of C-substrates. The results demonstrate that the presence of distinctly different plant communities did not alter the microbial community profile responsible for decomposition of relatively labile C-substrates but did alter the profiles of microbial communities responsible for decomposition of the more recalcitrant substrates, pine litter and indigenous soil organic matter.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Benzaldehydes / metabolism
  • Biomarkers / analysis
  • Carbon / metabolism*
  • Carbon Isotopes / metabolism
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / physiology*
  • Plant Leaves / enzymology
  • Quercus / microbiology*
  • Quercus / physiology*
  • Soil Microbiology*
  • Starch / metabolism
  • Xylose / metabolism


  • Benzaldehydes
  • Biomarkers
  • Carbon Isotopes
  • Carbon
  • Starch
  • Xylose
  • vanillin