Fungal community composition in neotropical rain forests: the influence of tree diversity and precipitation

Microb Ecol. 2012 May;63(4):804-12. doi: 10.1007/s00248-011-9973-x. Epub 2011 Nov 12.


Plant diversity is considered one factor structuring soil fungal communities because the diversity of compounds in leaf litter might determine the extent of resource heterogeneity for decomposer communities. Lowland tropical rain forests have the highest plant diversity per area of any biome. Since fungi are responsible for much of the decomposition occurring in forest soils, understanding the factors that structure fungi in tropical forests may provide valuable insight for predicting changes in global carbon and nitrogen fluxes. To test the role of plant diversity in shaping fungal community structure and function, soil (0-20 cm) and leaf litter (O horizons) were collected from six established 1-ha forest census plots across a natural plant diversity gradient on the Isthmus of Panama. We used 454 pyrosequencing and phospholipid fatty acid analysis to evaluate correlations between microbial community composition, precipitation, soil nutrients, and plant richness. In soil, the number of fungal taxa increased significantly with increasing mean annual precipitation, but not with plant richness. There were no correlations between fungal communities in leaf litter and plant diversity or precipitation, and fungal communities were found to be compositionally distinct between soil and leaf litter. To directly test for effects of plant species richness on fungal diversity and function, we experimentally re-created litter diversity gradients in litter bags with 1, 25, and 50 species of litter. After 6 months, we found a significant effect of litter diversity on decomposition rate between one and 25 species of leaf litter. However, fungal richness did not track plant species richness. Although studies in a broader range of sites is required, these results suggest that precipitation may be a more important factor than plant diversity or soil nutrient status in structuring tropical forest soil fungal communities.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • DNA, Fungal / analysis
  • DNA, Fungal / genetics
  • DNA, Fungal / isolation & purification
  • Ecosystem*
  • Fungi / classification
  • Fungi / genetics
  • Fungi / growth & development*
  • Fungi / isolation & purification
  • Plant Leaves / metabolism
  • Plant Leaves / microbiology
  • Rain*
  • Soil / chemistry*
  • Soil Microbiology*
  • Trees / classification*
  • Trees / microbiology
  • Tropical Climate*


  • DNA, Fungal
  • Soil