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PI-Submitted Research Highlights for
Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program

Nutrient-Hungry Peatland Microbes Reduce Carbon Loss Under Warmer Conditions

Kirsten Hofmockel


October 2019

Enzyme production in peatlands reduces carbon lost to respiration under future high temperatures.

The Science
As atmospheric temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations rise, photosynthesis by plants is expected to increase, leading to more photosynthate released by roots to the soil microbial community. Researchers from Pacific Northwest Northwest National Laboratory and Iowa State University examined the response of boreal peatland soils under future high temperatures. The team found that the peatland’s soil microbial communities allocated more carbon to enzyme production in search of phosphorus as temperatures climbed. This diversion of carbon resources could reduce future carbon losses by microbial respiration from the peatland.

The Impact
As boreal peatlands face warmer and drier conditions, it is expected that more carbon will be lost from these carbon-rich soils through increased microbial activity. This study showed that enhanced respiration and concomitant loss of carbon is potentially constrained by nutrient demands of the microorganisms. This tradeoff may help the peatland ecosystem retain soil carbon as temperatures warm.

Root exudates are carbon compounds, such as sugars and organic acids, which are easily consumed by soil microorganisms. With a warming climate, science suggests that increased photosynthesis by plants could lead to more photosynthate released as root exudates to the soil microbial community. To examine this question, researchers used laboratory incubations to control both temperature and moisture and simulate belowground substrate additions under an accelerated growing season. Results showed that with a moderate increase in temperature, the addition of common root exude compounds in peatlands initially increased carbon lost through microbial respiration above those treatments receiving water only. However, when pushed to future expected high temperatures, additional exudate compounds dampened the amount of additional carbon respired as compared to treatments receiving water only. This reduction in respiration suggests the microorganisms allocated carbon compounds to enzyme production to mine for limited resources instead of respiring carbon. The data also support the idea that boreal peatland microbial communities maintain a more narrow range in function, measured as respiration, across a range in climate conditions. A wide climatic niche in addition to reallocation of carbon resources dampens the magnitude of change in carbon respiration with increasing temperatures.

BER Program Manager
Daniel B. Stover, PhD
Program Manager, Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences
Climate and Environmental Sciences Division

Principal Investigator
Kirsten Hofmockel
Biological and Environmental Sciences Directorate
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

This material is based upon work supported by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) Program of the Office of Biological and Environmental Research, within the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science, under grant ER65430 to Iowa State University. The Spruce and Peatland Responses Under Changing Environments (SPRUCE) project is managed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is managed by UT-Battelle, LLC, for the U.S .Department of Energy under contract DE-AC05-00OR22725.

Keiser, A.D., Smith, M., Bell, S. & Hofmockel, K.S. "Peatland microbial community response to altered climate tempered by nutrient availability." Soil Biology and Biochemistry 137, 1–9 (2019). [DOI:10.1016/j.soilbio.2019.107561]

Related Links

Kirsten Hofmockel, Biological and Environmental Sciences Directorate,

This material is based upon work supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science (TES) Program, under grant ER65430 to Iowa State University. 

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