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Exotic earthworms alter soil microbial community composition and function

Dempsey, Mark A., Fisk, Melany C., Yavitt, Joseph B., Fahey, Timothy J., Balser, Teri C.
Soil biology & biochemistry 2013 v.67 pp. 263-270
bacteria, carbon, carbon nitrogen ratio, community structure, earthworms, enzyme activity, enzymes, hardwood forests, metabolism, mineral soils, mycorrhizal fungi, nitrogen, organic horizons, organic matter, phospholipid fatty acids, saprotrophs, temperate forests, New York
Exotic earthworms can profoundly alter soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) dynamics in northern temperate forests, but the mechanisms explaining these responses are not well understood. We compared the soil microbial community (SMC) composition (measured as PLFAs) and enzyme activity between paired earthworm-invaded and earthworm-free plots in northern hardwood forests of New York, USA. We hypothesized that differences in SMCs and enzyme activity between plots would correspond with differences in soil C content and C:N ratios. Relative abundance of several bacterial (mostly gram-positive) PLFAs was higher and that of two fungal PLFAs was lower in earthworm compared to reference plots, largely because of earthworm incorporation of the organic horizon into mineral soil. In surface mineral soil earthworms increased arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (AMF) and gram-positive bacterial PLFAs, and decreased fungal (mostly saprotrophic) and several bacterial (gram-negative and non-specific) PLFAs. Earthworms also increased the activities of cellulolytic relative to lignolytic enzymes in surface mineral soil, and the relationships between enzyme activities and components of the SMC suggest a substrate-mediated effect on the SMC and its metabolism of C. A highly significant relationship between components of the SMC and soil C:N also suggests that earthworms reduce soil C:N through functional and compositional shifts in the SMC. Finally, changes in AMF abundances were linked to phosphatase activity, suggesting that earthworms do not necessarily inhibit P-acquisition by AMF-associated plants in our study system. We conclude that the combined influence of earthworm-related changes in physical structure, accessibility and chemistry of organic matter, and relative abundance of certain groups of fungi and bacteria promote C metabolism, in particular by increasing the activities of cellulolytic vs. lignolytic enzymes.