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Climate-Driven Legacies in Simulated Microbial Communities Alter Litter Decomposition Rates

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The mechanisms underlying diversity-functioning relationships have been a consistent area of inquiry in biogeochemistry since the 1950s. Though these mechanisms remain unresolved in soil microbiomes, many approaches at varying scales have pointed to the same notion—composition matters. Confronting the methodological challenge arising from the complexity of microbiomes, this study used the model DEMENTpy, a trait-based modeling framework, to explore trait-based drivers of microbiome-dependent litter decomposition. We parameterized DEMENTpy for five sites along a climate gradient in Southern California, United States, and conducted reciprocal transplant simulations analogous to a prior empirical study. The simulations demonstrated climate-dependent legacy effects of microbial communities on plant litter decomposition across the gradient. This result is consistent with the previous empirical study across the same gradient. An analysis of community-level traits further suggests that a 3-way tradeoff among resource acquisition, stress tolerance, and yield strategies influences community assembly. Simulated litter decomposition was predictable with two community traits (indicative of two of the three strategies) plus local environment, regardless of the system state (transient vs. equilibrium). Although more empirical confirmation is still needed, community traits plus local environmental factors (e.g., environment and litter chemistry) may robustly predict litter decomposition across spatial-temporal scales. In conclusion, this study offers a potential trait-based explanation for climate-dependent community effects on litter decomposition with implications for improved understanding of whole-ecosystem functioning across scales.

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