Linking microbial community structure and function to seasonal differences in soil moisture and temperature in a Chihuahuan Desert grassland

Colin W. Bell, Veronica Acosta-Martinez, Nancy E. McIntyre, Stephen Cox, David T. Tissue, John C. Zak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

189 Scopus citations


Global and regional climate models predict higher air temperature and less frequent, but larger precipitation events in arid regions within the next century. While many studies have addressed the impact of variable climate in arid ecosystems on plant growth and physiological responses, fewer studies have addressed soil microbial community responses to seasonal shifts in precipitation and temperature in arid ecosystems. This study examined the impact of a wet (2004), average (2005), and dry (2006) year on subsequent responses of soil microbial community structure, function, and linkages, as well as soil edaphic and nutrient characteristics in a mid-elevation desert grassland in the Chihuahuan Desert. Microbial community structure was classified as bacterial (Gram-negative, Gram-positive, and actinomycetes) and fungal (saprophytic fungi and arbuscular mycorrhiza) categories using (fatty acid methyl ester) techniques. Carbon substrate use and enzymic activity was used to characterize microbial community function annually and seasonally (summer and winter). The relationship between saprophytic fungal community structure and function remained consistent across season independent of the magnitude or frequency of precipitation within any given year. Carbon utilization by fungi in the cooler winter exceeded use in the warmer summer each year suggesting that soil temperature, rather than soil moisture, strongly influenced fungal carbon use and structure and function dynamics. The structure/function relationship for AM fungi and soil bacteria notably changed across season. Moreover, the abundance of Gram-positive bacteria was lower in the winter compared to Gram-negative bacteria. Bacterial carbon use, however, was highest in the summer and lower during the winter. Enzyme activities did not respond to either annual or seasonal differences in the magnitude or timing of precipitation. Specific structural components of the soil microbiota community became uncoupled from total microbial function during different seasons. This change in the microbial structure/function relationship suggests that different components of the soil microbial community may provide similar ecosystem function, but differ in response to seasonal temperature and precipitation. As soil microbes encounter increased soil temperatures and altered precipitation amounts and timing that are predicted for this region, the ability of the soil microbial community to maintain functional resilience across the year may be reduced in this Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)827-842
Number of pages16
JournalMicrobial Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2009


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