Vulnerability and resistance in the spatial heterogeneity of soil microbial communities under resource additions

Authors: Kelly Gravuer, Anu Eskelinen, Joy B. Winbourne, Susan P. Harrison

Spatial heterogeneity in composition and function enables ecosystems to supply diverse services. For soil microbes and the ecosystem functions they catalyze, whether such heterogeneity can be maintained in the face of altered resource inputs is uncertain. In a 50-ha northern California grassland with a mosaic of plant communities generated by different soil types, we tested how spatial variability in microbial composition and function changed in response to nutrient and water addition. Fungal composition lost some of its spatial variability in response to nutrient addition, driven by decreases in mutualistic fungi and increases in antagonistic fungi that were strongest on the least fertile soils, where mutualists were initially most frequent and antagonists initially least frequent. Bacterial and archaeal community composition showed little change in their spatial variability with resource addition. Microbial functions related to nitrogen cycling showed increased spatial variability under nutrient, and sometimes water, additions, driven in part by accelerated nitrification on the initially more-fertile soils. Under anthropogenic changes such as eutrophication and altered rainfall, these findings illustrate the potential for significant changes in ecosystem-level spatial heterogeneity of microbial functions and communities.

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