Soil is a complex and dynamic biological system, and still in 2003 it is difficult to determine the composition of microbial communities in soil. We are also limited in the determination of microbially mediated reactions because present assays for determining the overall rate of entire metabolic processes (such as respiration) or specific enzyme activities (such as urease, protease and phosphomonoesterase activity) do not allow any identification of the microbial species directly involved in the measured processes. The central problem posed by the link between microbial diversity and soil function is to understand the relations between genetic diversity and community structure and between community structure and function. A better understanding of the relations between microbial diversity and soil functions requires not only the use of more accurate assays for taxonomically and functionally characterizing DNA and RNA extracted from soil, but also high-resolution techniques with which to detect inactive and active microbial cells in the soil matrix.
Soil seems to be characterized by a redundancy of functions; for example, no relationship has been shown to exist between microbial diversity and decomposition of organic matter. Generally, a reduction in any group of species has little effect on overall processes in soil because other microorganisms can take on its function.
The determination of the composition of microbial communities in soil is not necessary for a better quantification of nutrient transformations. The holistic approach, based on the division of the systems in pools and the measurement of fluxes linking these pools, is the most efficient. The determination of microbial C, N, P and S contents by fumigation techniques has allowed a better quantification of nutrient dynamics in soil. However, further advances require determining new pools, such as active microbial biomass, also with molecular techniques. Recently investigators have separated 13C- and 12C-DNA, both extracted from soil treated with a 13C source, by density-gradient centrifugation. This technique should allow us to calculate the active microbial C pool by multiplying the ratio between labelled and total DNA by the microbial biomass C content of soil. In addition, the taxonomic and functional characterization of 13C-DNA allows us to understand more precisely the changes in the composition of microbial communities affected by the C-substrate added to soil.