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Balancing act: Microbes speed up plant decomposition in a warming world

Our world is in a state of change, and as global temperatures rise, they cause ripple effects throughout our natural ecosystems. Some of these effects – like animals shifting northward to seek ideal temperatures – are easy to observe, but others are much less obvious. 

Plant decomposition

One important ecosystem process that is often overlooked is plant litter decomposition. Dead plant material is broken down by animals, fungi, and microbes, which in turn releases essential nutrients back into the ecosystem for the next generation of plants. 

The speed of plant decomposition plays a crucial role in determining the carbon storage capacity of an ecosystem. Furthermore, the storage capacity of ecosystems directly affects the levels of carbon dioxide, a leading greenhouse gas responsible for current warming trends.

Just as different plant species possess distinct nutrient profiles, the decomposition products vary depending on the plant species. But it’s not just about the plants. Microbes in the soil, responsible for most of the decomposition, are also influenced by warming temperatures.

Focus of the research 

In a study led by Holden Arboretum ecologists, researchers set out to investigate the interactions between plants, microbes, and increasing temperatures. 

“Our study is exciting because scientists haven’t extensively explored how changes in the plant and decomposer communities will interact under climate warming,” said study lead author Emma Dawson-Glass.

“Studying how decomposition is impacted by warming can help us better understand how the function of our environment is being altered by climate change. By improving our understanding of the changes caused by climate warming, we can also help to better inform climate intervention strategies.”

Evolving microbial communities 

Building on prior research, the team recognized that while warming temperatures expedited microbial decomposition, they also shifted plant communities in ways that slowed the process. The team conducted lab experiments to take a closer look at these responses.

The researchers found that the presence of Indian grass, a slower-decomposing grass, generally hampered decomposition. However, the delay was nullified when soil microbes were accustomed to warmer temperatures. 

This indicated that microbial communities had evolved under warmer conditions, becoming more efficient at decomposing Indian grass, which also proliferates in such conditions.

Simultaneous shifts 

The findings suggest that adjustments in microbial and plant communities might actually balance out the changes in decomposition due to global warming. This realization emphasizes the need for a multifaceted approach when assessing global warming’s impact on ecosystems.

“The impacts of global warming are pervasive, but so incredibly nuanced,” said study senior author Katie Stuble. “The response of one element of the environment to warming is almost certainly influenced by simultaneous shifts in other elements. Sometimes these confounding changes may exacerbate the impacts of warming, but they may also mitigate the impacts.” 

“Unpacking the intricate ways in which warming will modify various aspects of the environment, but also how these changes will interact with one another, will be a critical step in understanding how climate change is reshaping the world now, as well as into the future.”

The research is published in the journal Functional Ecology.

More about plant decomposition 

Plant decomposition refers to the breakdown of dead plant materials, such as leaves, stems, and roots, into simpler organic and inorganic compounds. 

This process is primarily driven by physical factors (like temperature and moisture), chemical factors (like the material’s composition), and biological agents, notably microbes (bacteria and fungi), as well as larger decomposers like insects and earthworms.

Why is plant decomposition important? 


Decomposition releases nutrients that were previously locked up in plant tissues. This provides essential nutrients for other plants and organisms in the ecosystem.

Soil structure

As plant materials decompose, they enrich the soil and help in forming humus. This improves soil’s water retention, aeration, and overall health.

Carbon cycle

Decomposition plays a significant role in the carbon cycle. Plants absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis and store it as carbon. When plants die, this carbon is returned to the environment as CO2 through decomposition.

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