Soil microbial communities are shaped by plant-driven changes in resource availability during secondary succession

Lauren C. Cline, Donald R. Zak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


Although we understand the ecological processes eliciting changes in plant community composition during secondary succession, we do not understand whether cooccurring changes in plant detritus shape saprotrophic microbial communities in soil. In this study, we investigated soil microbial composition and function across an old-field chronosequence ranging from 16 to 86 years following agricultural abandonment, as well as three forests representing potential late-successional ecosystems. Fungal and bacterial community composition was quantified from ribosomal DNA, and insight into the functional potential of the microbial community to decay plant litter was gained from shotgun metagenomics and extracellular enzyme assays. Accumulation of soil organic matter across the chronosequence exerted a positive and significant effect on fungal phylogenetic β-diversity and the activity of extracellular enzymes with lignocellulolytic activity. In addition, the increasing abundance of lignin-rich C4 grasses was positively related to the composition of fungal genes with lignocellulolytic function, thereby linking plant community composition, litter biochemistry, and microbial community function. However, edaphic properties were the primary agent shaping bacterial communities, as bacterial β-diversity and variation in functional gene composition displayed a significant and positive relationship to soil pH across the chronosequence. The late-successional forests were compositionally distinct from the oldest old fields, indicating that substantial changes occur in soil microbial communities as old fields give way to forests. Taken together, our observations demonstrate that plants govern the turnover of soil fungal communities and functional characteristics during secondary succession, due to the continual input of detritus and differences in litter biochemistry among plant species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3374-3385
Number of pages12
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 by the Ecological Society of America.


  • Cedar creek reserve, Minnesota, USA
  • Metagenomics
  • Microbial community assembly
  • Old field
  • Secondary succession
  • Soil


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