The researchers studied soil microbes at Harvard Forest in Massachusetts, the site of a soil warming experiment that began in 1991. Scientists took soil samples from two plots, one in which buried cables heat the soil to five degrees Celsius above the ambient soil temperature (a condition that is expected to occur around 2100) and a control condition in which cables are buried but not producing heat.
In the first set of experiments, the scientists compared microbial respiration in the two groups and found lower rates of decomposition in the heated plots. This finding supported the idea that respiration decreases after a few years of warming, but didn't explain whether the cause was substrate depletion in the warmer soils or adaptation by the microbes.
In the next set of experiments, they added the simple sugar sucrose to both sets of soils to alleviate any food limitation for the microbes. They found that microbes from both conditions increased their respiration, but that the increase was greater in the unheated control soils than in the heated soils. "That finding told us that substrate depletion played a role," Bradford said, "but it also told us that there were other factors involved."
The researchers then measured microbial biomass and found that there were fewer microbes in the heated soils. To test whether thermal adaptation occurred, they measured respiration while keeping temperature constant. They found that respiration rates were indeed lower in the heated versus the control soils, even when adjusting for microbial biomass.
Wallenstein pointed out that the study is among
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University of Georgia