Spatial gradients in the characteristics of soil-carbon fractions are associated with abiotic features but not microbial communities

Aditi Sengupta, Julia Indivero, Cailene Gunn, Malak M. Tfaily, Rosalie K. Chu, Jason Toyoda, Vanessa L. Bailey, Nicholas D. Ward, James C. Stegen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Coastal terrestrial-aquatic interfaces (TAIs) are dynamic zones of biogeochemical cycling influenced by salinity gradients. However, there is significant heterogeneity in salinity influences on TAI soil biogeochemical function. This heterogeneity is perhaps related to unrecognized mechanisms associated with carbon (C) chemistry and microbial communities. To investigate this potential, we evaluated hypotheses associated with salinity-associated shifts in organic C thermodynamics; biochemical transformations; and nitrogen-, phosphorus-, and sulfur-containing heteroatom organic compounds in a first-order coastal watershed on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, USA. In contrast to our hypotheses, thermodynamic favorability of water-soluble organic compounds in shallow soils decreased with increasing salinity (43-867 μS cm-1), as did the number of inferred biochemical transformations and total heteroatom content. These patterns indicate lower microbial activity at higher salinity that is potentially constrained by accumulation of less-favorable organic C. Furthermore, organic compounds appeared to be primarily marine- or algae-derived in forested floodplain soils with more lipid-like and protein-like compounds, relative to upland soils that had more lignin-, tannin-, and carbohydrate-like compounds. Based on a recent simulation-based study, we further hypothesized a relationship between C chemistry and the ecological assembly processes governing microbial community composition. Null modeling revealed that differences in microbial community composition - assayed using 16S rRNA gene sequencing - were primarily the result of limited exchange of organisms among communities (i.e., dispersal limitation). This results in unstructured demographic events that cause community composition to diverge stochastically, as opposed to divergence in community composition being due to deterministic selection-based processes associated with differences in environmental conditions. The strong influence of stochastic processes was further reflected in there being no statistical relationship between community assembly processes (e.g., the relative influence of stochastic assembly processes) and C chemistry (e.g., heteroatom content). This suggests that microbial community composition does not have a mechanistic or causal linkage to C chemistry. The salinity-associated gradient in C chemistry was, therefore, likely influenced by a combination of spatially structured inputs and salinityassociated metabolic responses of microbial communities that were independent of community composition. We propose that impacts of salinity on coastal soil biogeochemistry need to be understood in the context of C chemistry, hydrologic or depositional dynamics, and microbial physiology, while microbial composition may have less influence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3911-3928
Number of pages18
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 10 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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