Get access

How interactions between microbial resource demands, soil organic matter stoichiometry, and substrate reactivity determine the direction and magnitude of soil respiratory responses to warming


  • Sharon A. Billings,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Kansas Biological Survey, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, USA
    • Correspondence: Dr Sharon A. Billings, tel. + 785 864 1560, fax + 785 864 1534, e-mail:

    Search for more papers by this author
  • Ford Ballantyne IV

    1. Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Kansas Biological Survey, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, USA
    Search for more papers by this author


Recent empirical and theoretical advances inform us about multiple drivers of soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and microbial responses to warming. Absent from our conceptual framework of how soil respiration will respond to warming are adequate links between microbial resource demands, kinetic theory, and substrate stoichiometry. Here, we describe two important concepts either insufficiently explored in current investigations of SOM responses to temperature, or not yet addressed. First, we describe the complete range of responses for how warming may change microbial resource demands, physiology, community structure, and total biomass. Second, we describe how any relationship between SOM activation energy of decay and carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stoichiometry can alter the relative availability of C and N as temperature changes. Changing availabilities of C and N liberated from their organic precursors can feedback to microbial resource demands, which in turn influence the aggregated respiratory response to temperature we observe. An unsuspecting biogeochemist focused primarily on temperature sensitivity of substrate decay thus cannot make accurate projections of heterotrophic CO2 losses from diverse organic matter reservoirs in a warming world. We establish the linkages between enzyme kinetics, SOM characteristics, and potential for microbial adaptation critical for making such projections. By examining how changing microbial needs interact with inherent SOM structure and composition, and thus reactivity, we demonstrate the means by which increasing temperature could result in increasing, unchanging, or even decreasing respiration rates observed in soils. We use this exercise to highlight ideas for future research that will develop our abilities to predict SOM feedbacks to climate.