Response of Total (DNA) and Metabolically Active (RNA) Microbial Communities in Miscanthus × Giganteus Cultivated Soil to Different Nitrogen Fertilization Rates

Microbiol Spectr. 2022 Feb 23;10(1):e0211621. doi: 10.1128/spectrum.02116-21. Epub 2022 Feb 16.


Miscanthus × giganteus is a promising high-yielding perennial plant to meet growing bioenergy demands; however, the degree to which the soil microbiome affects its nitrogen cycling and subsequently, biomass yield remains unclear. In this study, we hypothesize that contributions of metabolically active soil microbial membership may be underestimated with DNA-based approaches. We assessed the response of the soil microbiome to nitrogen availability in terms of both DNA and RNA soil microbial communities from the Long-term Assessment of Miscanthus Productivity and Sustainability (LAMPS) field trial. DNA and RNA were extracted from 271 samples, and 16S small subunit (SSU) rRNA amplicon sequencing was performed to characterize microbial community structure. Significant differences were observed in the resulting soil microbiomes and were best explained by the sequencing library of origin, either DNA or RNA. Similar numbers of membership were detected in DNA and RNA microbial communities, with more than 90% of membership shared. However, the profile of dominant membership within DNA and RNA differed, with varying proportions of Actinobacteria and Proteobacteria and Firmicutes and Proteobacteria. Only RNA microbial communities showed seasonal responses to nitrogen fertilization, and these differences were associated with nitrogen-cycling bacteria. The relative abundance of bacteria associated with nitrogen cycling was 7-fold higher in RNA than in DNA, and genes associated with denitrifying bacteria were significantly enriched in RNA, suggesting that these bacteria may be underestimated with DNA-only approaches. Our findings indicate that RNA-based SSU characterization can be a significant and complementing resource for understanding the role of soil microbiomes in bioenergy crop production. IMPORTANCEMiscanthus × giganteus is a promising candidate for bioeconomy cropping systems; however, it remains unclear how the soil microbiome supplies nitrogen to this low-input crop. DNA-based techniques are used to provide community characterization, but may miss important metabolically active taxa. By analyzing both DNA- and actively transcribed RNA-based microbial communities, we found that nitrogen cycling taxa in the soil microbiome may be underestimated using only DNA-based approaches. Accurately understanding the role of microbes and how they cycle nutrients is important for the development of sustainable bioenergy crops, and RNA-based approaches are recommended as a complement to DNA approaches to better understand the microbial, plant, and management interactions.

Keywords: Miscanthus × giganteus; RNA; activity; nitrogen; soil microbiome.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Actinobacteria
  • Bacteria / classification
  • Bacteria / genetics*
  • Crops, Agricultural
  • DNA
  • Fertilization
  • Microbiota / genetics*
  • Microbiota / physiology*
  • Nitrogen
  • Proteobacteria
  • RNA
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / genetics
  • Soil / chemistry*
  • Soil Microbiology*


  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S
  • Soil
  • RNA
  • DNA
  • Nitrogen