Will warming lead to an increased use of older soil organic carbon (SOC) by microbial communities, thereby inducing C losses from C-rich alpine soils? We studied soil microbial community composition, activity, and substrate use after 3 and 4 years of soil warming (+4 °C, 2007–2010) at the alpine treeline in Switzerland. The warming experiment was nested in a free air CO2 enrichment experiment using depleted 13CO2 (δ13C = −30‰, 2001–2009). We traced this depleted 13C label in phospholipid fatty acids (PLFA) of the organic layer (0–5 cm soil depth) and in C mineralized from root-free soils to distinguish substrate ages used by soil microorganisms: fixed before 2001 (‘old’), from 2001 to 2009 (‘new’) or in 2010 (‘recent’). Warming induced a sustained stimulation of soil respiration (+38%) without decline in mineralizable SOC. PLFA concentrations did not reveal changes in microbial community composition due to soil warming, but soil microbial metabolic activity was stimulated (+66%). Warming decreased the amount of new and recent C in the fungal biomarker 18:2ω6,9 and the amount of new C mineralized from root-free soils, implying a shift in microbial substrate use toward a greater use of old SOC. This shift in substrate use could indicate an imbalance between C inputs and outputs, which could eventually decrease SOC storage in this alpine ecosystem.
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