Environment Celebration Institute

Microbial Growth Under The Snow

S.K. Schmidt, D.A. Lipson. (2004). Microbial growth under the snow: Implications for nutrient and allelochemical availability in temperate soils. Plant and Soil, Vol. 259, Issue 1-2, pp. 1-7.


Recent work has shown that plant litter inputs fuel microbial growth in autumn and winter resulting in a large increase of microbial biomass under the snow pack in tundra soils. This winter-adapted microbial community can grow at low temperatures (−5 to 3 °C) and depletes the litter of easily degraded constituents, such as simple phenolic compounds, and immobilizes nitrogen. During snowmelt there is a die-off of this winter microbial community (due to starvation and intolerance to higher soil temperature) resulting in a release of nitrogen that can be utilized by plants and the summer microbial community. The summer microbial community can tolerate higher temperatures (5 to 20 °C) and utilizes mostly plant root exudates for growth. These yearly cycles of microbial growth dynamics have profound implications for both nutrient and alleochemical availability to plants. Firstly, these results show that release (from litter) and degradation of plant phenolic compounds (potential alleochemicals) occurs before plant growth commences in the spring. Secondly, nitrogen (N) immobilized by over-winter microbial growth is released back to the soil during and after snowmelt, thus becoming available to plants. Both of these results need to be incorporated in the design of experiments to explore plant-plant interactions. Many experiments in which chemicals (or fresh litter) are incorporated during plant growth do not reflect the fact that these two events are temporally uncoupled in many natural systems.

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