The Role of Volatile Organic Compounds on Soil Microbial Communities and Ecosystem Processes
McBride, Steven Glynn II
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Soil microorganisms are primarily limited by carbon (C) availability. The majority of C entering belowground food webs comes directly from local flora. Plant derived labile C compounds affect microbial community structure and function, which in turn drive ecosystem function. Research has focused on dissolved organic C (DOC) from litter leachates and root exudates. These compounds are often readily assimilable by soil microorganisms and are precursors for stable soil organic matter formation. Due to diffusion limitation DOC rarely travels far beyond its origin, meaning most soil microorganisms are unable to access these compounds unless they are located near the C source. However, recent studies have illuminated the importance of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in soil ecosystems. VOCs are produced in abundance and, as vapors, they are able to travel through soil more rapidly than DOC. This dissertation aims to investigate the importance of VOCs commonly produced during the decomposition of leaf litter. We used three separate microcosm experiments to answer the following questions. 1) How do abundant VOCs affect microbial activity in soil? 2) How do VOCs affect nitrogen (N) transformations and the microbes associated with N transformations? 3) How do VOCs affect microbial community composition? 4) Are VOCs from decomposing litter incorporated into soil C pools? In chapter 2, we show that methanol and acetone – common litter derived VOCs – increase microbial activity and labile soil C, while also decreasing available nitrate, and ammonia oxidizing archaea. Interestingly, this decrease in nitrifiers did not affect nitrification rate after VOC addition was ceased. In chapter 3, we demonstrate that soil microbial taxa respond differently to DOC and VOCs at different soil moisture levels. Specifically, DOC primarily affected taxa abundance in wetter soils, while the insoluble VOC α-pinene had the largest impact at lower moisture levels, and methanol affected abundance at all moisture levels. Finally, in chapter 4, we demonstrate that VOCs from decomposing leaf litter altered soil bacterial and fungal communities, and VOC derived C entered all measured soil organic matter pools without direct contact between decomposing litters and the soil. This work demonstrates the importance of VOCs on soil microbial communities and ecosystem function. The VOC induced increase in microbial activity, and the effects of VOCs at low moisture levels suggest that VOCs may function in the bulk soil in a manner similar to DOC in rhizosphere soil. Additionally, the incorporation of VOC-C into soil organic matter pools identifies a hitherto unrecognized mechanism for soil organic matter formation.
General Audience Abstract
Soil microorganisms live in an environment where their access to carbon containing compounds limits their growth. In these belowground environments most of the carbon flows from aboveground plant matter through soil microbes into the organisms that consume those microbes. The carbon from plants not only feeds the soil microbes but also changes the type of microbes and how those microbes process important chemicals in the environment – e.g., carbon and nitrogen. Previously, research has focused on carbon compounds that are able to dissolve in water. Often, these compounds originate from liquids that plants release from their roots, or dissolve like tea when leaves are soaked in water. Soil microorganisms can often use these dissolved carbon compounds and directly incorporate them into their biomass. Additionally, these compounds can be stored in soil - sequestering that carbon in the soil, potentially long term. However, dissolved compounds are unable to move very quickly through soil, and the soil microorganisms that live far from the source of these compounds do not have access to them. However, recent studies have found that another form of carbon, volatile organic compounds, are also produced in abundance in the soil environment. These compounds can travel through the air in the soil, as well as in the soil water. When in the air, VOCs travel very quickly and can also travel farther than dissolved compounds. This dissertation aims to investigate the importance of volatile organic compounds that are produced during the decomposition of leaves. We carried out three experiments using small volumes of soil under controlled conditions in the laboratory. We aimed to answer the following questions. 1) How do abundant volatile organic compounds affect microbial activity in soil? 2) How do volatile organic compounds affect microbial processing of nitrogen containing compounds, and the populations of microorganisms that process those compounds? 3) How do volatile organic compounds affect the composition of microorganism in the soil? 4) Are volatile organic compounds from decomposing leaves able to be stabilized in the soil. In chapter 1, we show that methanol and acetone – common volatile compounds produced during the decomposition of leaves– increase microbial activity, and microbial available carbon in soil. Methanol and acetone also decreased available nitrate (an important N containing compound) and a group of organisms that produce nitrate called ammonia oxidizing archaea. Interestingly, once we stopped adding methanol and acetone to the soil the production of nitrate did not differ, meaning that the nitrate producing community was able to recover from the reduction in ammonia oxidizing archaea. In chapter 2, we demonstrated that soil microbial taxa respond differently to dissolved carbon and volatile organic compounds across a gradient of soil moisture. Specifically, dissolved carbon primarily affected taxa abundance in wetter soils, while the insoluble volatile α-pinene had the largest impact at lower moisture levels, and the volatile compound methanol affected abundance of microbial taxa at all moisture levels. Finally, in chapter 3, we demonstrate that volatile organic compounds produced during the decomposition of leaves altered the composition of both bacterial and fungal communities in the soil. Also, and possibly most interestingly, carbon from those volatile organic compounds was stored in all of the pools of carbon that we measured. Together these chapters demonstrate the importance of volatile organic compounds on soil microbial communities and ecosystem function. Since volatile organic compounds induced an increase in microbial activity we are able to infer that soil microorganisms are using these compounds; paired with our observation that volatile organic compounds affected microbial taxa at lower moisture levels than the dissolved compounds did, we can infer that volatile compounds may function as a carbon source in parts of the soil that do not have access to dissolved carbon. Additionally, the incorporation of carbon from volatile organic compounds into soil identified a hitherto unrecognized mechanism for soil carbon sequestration.
- Doctoral Dissertations