The interacting roles of climate, soils, and plant production on soil microbial communities at a continental scale
Soil microbial communities control critical ecosystem processes such as decomposition, nutrient cycling, and soil organic matter formation. Continental scale patterns in the composition and functioning of microbial communities are related to climatic, biotic, and edaphic factors such as temperature and precipitation, plant community composition, and soil carbon, nitrogen, and pH. Although these relationships have been well explored individually, the examination of the factors that may act directly on microbial communities vs. those that may act indirectly through other ecosystem properties has not been well developed. To further such understanding, we utilized structural equation modeling (SEM) to evaluate a set of hypotheses about the direct and indirect effects of climatic, biotic, and edaphic variables on microbial communities across the continental United States. The primary goals of this work were to test our current understanding of the interactions among climate, soils, and plants in affecting microbial community composition, and to examine whether variation in the composition of the microbial community affects potential rates of soil enzymatic activities. A model of interacting factors created through SEM shows several expected patterns. Distal factors such as climate had indirect effects on microbial communities by influencing plant productivity, soil mineralogy, and soil pH, but factors related to soil organic matter chemistry had the most direct influence on community composition. We observed that both plant productivity and soil mineral composition were important indirect influences on community composition at the continental scale, both interacting to affect organic matter content and microbial biomass and ultimately community composition. Although soil hydrolytic enzymes were related to the moisture regime and soil carbon, oxidative enzymes were also affected by community composition, reflected in the abundance of soil fungi. These results highlight that soil microbial communities can be modeled within the context of multiple interacting ecosystem properties acting both directly and indirectly on their composition and function, and this provides a rich and informative context with which to examine communities. This work also highlights that variation in climate, microbial biomass, and microbial community composition can affect maximum rates of soil enzyme activities, potentially influencing rates of decomposition and nutrient mineralization in soils.