Leaf Litter Mixtures Alter Microbial Community Development: Mechanisms for Non-Additive Effects in Litter Decomposition

Samantha K. Chapman, Gregory S. Newman, Stephen C. Hart, Jennifer A. Schweitzer, George W. Koch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

126 Scopus citations


To what extent microbial community composition can explain variability in ecosystem processes remains an open question in ecology. Microbial decomposer communities can change during litter decomposition due to biotic interactions and shifting substrate availability. Though relative abundance of decomposers may change due to mixing leaf litter, linking these shifts to the non-additive patterns often recorded in mixed species litter decomposition rates has been elusive, and links community composition to ecosystem function. We extracted phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) from single species and mixed species leaf litterbags after 10 and 27 months of decomposition in a mixed conifer forest. Total PLFA concentrations were 70% higher on litter mixtures than single litter types after 10 months, but were only 20% higher after 27 months. Similarly, fungal-to-bacterial ratios differed between mixed and single litter types after 10 months of decomposition, but equalized over time. Microbial community composition, as indicated by principal components analyses, differed due to both litter mixing and stage of litter decomposition. PLFA biomarkers a15:0 and cy17:0, which indicate gram-positive and gram-negative bacteria respectively, in particular drove these shifts. Total PLFA correlated significantly with single litter mass loss early in decomposition but not at later stages. We conclude that litter mixing alters microbial community development, which can contribute to synergisms in litter decomposition. These findings advance our understanding of how changing forest biodiversity can alter microbial communities and the ecosystem processes they mediate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere62671
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 29 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General


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