Explicitly representing soil microbial processes in Earth system models

William R. Wieder, Steven D. Allison, Eric A. Davidson, Katerina Georgiou, Oleksandra Hararuk, Yujie He, Francesca Hopkins, Yiqi Luo, Matthew J. Smith, Benjamin Sulman, Katherine Todd-Brown, Ying Ping Wang, Jianyang Xia, Xiaofeng Xu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

240 Scopus citations


Microbes influence soil organic matter decomposition and the long-term stabilization of carbon (C) in soils. We contend that by revising the representation of microbial processes and their interactions with the physicochemical soil environment, Earth system models (ESMs) will make more realistic global C cycle projections. Explicit representation of microbial processes presents considerable challenges due to the scale at which these processes occur. Thus, applying microbial theory in ESMs requires a framework to link micro-scale process-level understanding and measurements to macro-scale models used to make decadal- to century-long projections. Here we review the diversity, advantages, and pitfalls of simulating soil biogeochemical cycles using microbial-explicit modeling approaches. We present a roadmap for how to begin building, applying, and evaluating reliable microbial-explicit model formulations that can be applied in ESMs. Drawing from experience with traditional decomposition models, we suggest the following: (1) guidelines for common model parameters and output that can facilitate future model intercomparisons; (2) development of benchmarking and model-data integration frameworks that can be used to effectively guide, inform, and evaluate model parameterizations with data from well-curated repositories; and (3) the application of scaling methods to integrate microbial-explicit soil biogeochemistry modules within ESMs. With contributions across scientific disciplines, we feel this roadmap can advance our fundamental understanding of soil biogeochemical dynamics and more realistically project likely soil C response to environmental change at global scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1782-1800
Number of pages19
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Earth system modeling
  • biogeochemical cycles, processes, and modeling
  • carbon cycling
  • microbe/mineral interactions
  • soils/pedology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • General Environmental Science
  • Atmospheric Science


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