Ecosystem functioning in grasslands is regulated by a range of biotic and abiotic factors, and the role of microbial communities in regulating ecosystem function has been the subject of much recent scrutiny. However, there are still knowledge gaps regarding the impacts of rainfall and vegetation change upon microbial communities and the implications of these changes for ecosystem functioning. We investigated this issue using data from an experimental mesotrophic grassland study in south-east England, which had been subjected to four years of rainfall and plant functional composition manipulations. Soil respiration, nitrogen and phosphorus stocks were measured, and the abundance and community structure of soil microbes were characterised using quantitative PCR and multiplex-TRFLP analysis, respectively. Bacterial community structure was strongly related to the plant functional composition treatments, but not the rainfall treatment. However, there was a strong effect of both rainfall change and plant functional group upon bacterial abundance. There was also a weak interactive effect of the two treatments upon fungal community structure, although fungal abundance was not affected by either treatment. Next, we used a statistical approach to assess whether treatment effects on ecosystem function were regulated by the microbial community. Our results revealed that ecosystem function was influenced by the experimental treatments, but was not related to associated changes to the microbial community. Overall, these results indicate that changes in fungal and bacterial community structure and abundance play a relatively minor role in determining grassland ecosystem function responses to precipitation and plant functional composition change, and that direct effects on soil physical and chemical properties and upon plant and microbial physiology may play a more important role.
- Climate change
- Ecosystem function
- Plant-soil (below-ground) interactions