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Aridity thresholds of soil microbial metabolic indices along a 3,200 km transect across arid and semi-arid regions in Northern China.

  • Author(s): Hou, Jianfeng
  • Dijkstra, Feike A
  • Zhang, Xiuwei
  • Wang, Chao
  • Lü, Xiaotao
  • Wang, Peng
  • Han, Xingguo
  • Cheng, Weixin
  • et al.

Soil microbial processes are crucial for understanding the ecological functions of arid and semi-arid lands which occupy approximately 40% of the global terrestrial ecosystems. However, how soil microbial metabolic activities may change across a wide aridity gradient in drylands remains unclear. Here, we investigated three soil microbial metabolic indices (soil organic carbon (SOC)-based microbial respiration, metabolic quotient, and microbial biomass as a proportion of total SOC) and the degree of carbon limitation for microbial respiration along a 3,200 km transect with a wide aridity gradient. The aridity gradient was customarily expressed using the aridity index (AI) which was calculated as the ratio of mean annual precipitation to mean annual evaporation, therefore, a lower AI value indicated a higher degree of aridity. Our results showed non-linear relationships between AI values and the metabolic indices with a clear aridity threshold for each of the three metabolic indices along the aridity gradient, respectively (AI = 0.13 for basal respiration, AI = 0.17 for metabolic quotient, and AI = 0.17 for MBC:SOC ratio). These metabolic indices linearly declined when AI was above the thresholds, but did not show any clear patterns when AI was below the thresholds. We also found that soil microbial respiration was highly limited by available carbon substrates at locations with higher primary production and relatively lower level of water limitation when AI was above the threshold, a counter-intuitive pattern that microbes were more starved in ecosystems with more substrate input. However, the increasing level of carbon limitation did correspond to the declining trend of the three metabolic indices along the AI gradient, which indicates that the carbon limitation influences microbial metabolism. We also found that the ratio of microbial biomass carbon to SOC in arid regions (AI < 0.2) with extremely low precipitation and primary production were not quantitatively related to SOC content. Overall, our results imply that microbial metabolism is distinctively different in arid lands than in non-arid lands.

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