Life and death in the soil microbiome: how ecological processes influence biogeochemistry

Nat Rev Microbiol. 2022 Jul;20(7):415-430. doi: 10.1038/s41579-022-00695-z. Epub 2022 Feb 28.


Soil microorganisms shape global element cycles in life and death. Living soil microorganisms are a major engine of terrestrial biogeochemistry, driving the turnover of soil organic matter - Earth's largest terrestrial carbon pool and the primary source of plant nutrients. Their metabolic functions are influenced by ecological interactions with other soil microbial populations, soil fauna and plants, and the surrounding soil environment. Remnants of dead microbial cells serve as fuel for these biogeochemical engines because their chemical constituents persist as soil organic matter. This non-living microbial biomass accretes over time in soil, forming one of the largest pools of organic matter on the planet. In this Review, we discuss how the biogeochemical cycling of organic matter depends on both living and dead soil microorganisms, their functional traits, and their interactions with the soil matrix and other organisms. With recent omics advances, many of the traits that frame microbial population dynamics and their ecophysiological adaptations can be deciphered directly from assembled genomes or patterns of gene or protein expression. Thus, it is now possible to leverage a trait-based understanding of microbial life and death within improved biogeochemical models and to better predict ecosystem functioning under new climate regimes.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biomass
  • Carbon / metabolism
  • Ecosystem
  • Microbiota*
  • Plants / metabolism
  • Soil Microbiology
  • Soil*


  • Soil
  • Carbon