Cross-biome patterns in soil microbial respiration predictable from evolutionary theory on thermal adaptation

Mark A. Bradford, Rebecca L. McCulley, Thomas W. Crowther, Emily E. Oldfield, Stephen A. Wood, Noah Fierer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


Climate warming may stimulate microbial metabolism of soil carbon, causing a carbon-cycle–climate feedback whereby carbon is redistributed from the soil to atmospheric CO 2 . The magnitude of this feedback is uncertain, in part because warming-induced shifts in microbial physiology and/or community composition could retard or accelerate soil carbon losses. Here, we measure microbial respiration rates for soils collected from 22 sites in each of 3 years, at locations spanning boreal to tropical climates. Respiration was measured in the laboratory with standard temperatures, moisture and excess carbon substrate, to allow physiological and community effects to be detected independent of the influence of these abiotic controls. Patterns in respiration for soils collected across the climate gradient are consistent with evolutionary theory on physiological responses that compensate for positive effects of temperature on metabolism. Respiration rates per unit microbial biomass were as much as 2.6 times higher for soils sampled from sites with a mean annual temperature of −2.0 versus 21.7 °C. Subsequent 100-d incubations suggested differences in the plasticity of the thermal response among microbial communities, with communities sampled from sites with higher mean annual temperature having a more plastic response. Our findings are consistent with adaptive metabolic responses to contrasting thermal regimes that are also observed in plants and animals. These results may help build confidence in soil-carbon–climate feedback projections by improving understanding of microbial processes represented in biogeochemical models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-231
Number of pages9
JournalNature Ecology and Evolution
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research was supported by the US National Science Foundation with grants to M.A.B., R.L.M. and N.F. (DEB-1457614, -1021098, -1021222 and -1021112). This work was made possible by the generosity of researchers at the 11 locations who collected and packaged soils—in particular, A. Keiser, I. Halm, S. Bailey, M. Schulze, S. VanderWulp, P. O’Neal, T. Van Slyke, K. Chowanski, J. Love, A. Barker Plotkin, S. Cantrell and C. Giardina. Thanks also to J. Nelson for the PLFA analyses, and the Bradford laboratory group and M. Dacal for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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