Resilience vs. Historical Contingency in Microbial Responses to Environmental Change

Ecol Lett. 2015 Jul;18(7):612-25. doi: 10.1111/ele.12451. Epub 2015 May 7.


How soil processes such as carbon cycling will respond to future climate change depends on the responses of complex microbial communities, but most ecosystem models assume that microbial functional responses are resilient and can be predicted from simple parameters such as biomass and temperature. Here, we consider how historical contingencies might alter those responses because function depends on prior conditions or biota. Functional resilience can be driven by physiological, community or adaptive shifts; historical contingencies can result from the influence of historical environments or a combination of priority effects and biotic resistance. By modelling microbial population responses to environmental change, we demonstrate that historical environments can constrain soil function with the degree of constraint depending on the magnitude of change in the context of the prior environment. For example microbial assemblages from more constant environments were more sensitive to change leading to poorer functional acclimatisation compared to microbial assemblages from more fluctuating environments. Such historical contingencies can lead to deviations from expected functional responses to climate change as well as local variability in those responses. Our results form a set of interrelated hypotheses regarding soil microbial responses to climate change that warrant future empirical attention.

Keywords: Acclimation; acclimatisation; adaptation; climate change; competition; dormancy; ecosystem function; legacy; microbial community; plasticity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution
  • Climate Change*
  • Ecology / methods
  • Ecosystem
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Soil / chemistry*
  • Soil Microbiology*


  • Soil