The response of the soil microfood web (microflora, nematodes) to a moderate increase in atmospheric CO2 (+20%) was investigated by means of a free air CO2 enrichment experiment. The study was carried out in a seminatural temperate grassland for a period of 4 consecutive years (1 year before fumigation commenced and 3 years with fumigation). Several soil biological parameters showed no change (microbial biomass, bacterial biomass) or decline (microbial respiration) in the first year of elevated CO2 treatment as compared with controls. Each of these parameters were higher than controls, however, after 3 years of treatment. The relative abundance of predaceous nematodes also decreased in year 1 of the experiment, increased in year 2, but decreased again in year 3. In contrast, the relative abundance of root hair feeding nematodes, at first, increased under elevated CO2 and then returned to the initial level again. Increased microbial biomass indicates enhanced C storage in the labile carbon pool of the active microfood web in subsequent years. According to measurements on the amounts of soil extractable C, changes in resource availability seem to be key to the response of the soil microfood web.
We found a strong response of bacteria to elevated CO2, while the fungal biomass remained largely unchanged. This contrasts to findings reported in the literature. We hypothesize that this may be because of contrasting effects of different levels of CO2 enrichment on the microbial community (i.e. stimulation of bacteria at moderate levels and stimulation of fungi at high levels of CO2 enrichment). However, various CO2 effects observed in our study are similar in magnitude to those observed in other studies for a much higher level of atmospheric carbon. These include the particular sensitivity of predaceous nematodes and the long-term increase of microbial respiration. Our findings confirm that the potential of terrestrial ecosystems to accumulate additional carbon might be lower than previously thought. Furthermore, CO2-induced changes of temperate grassland ecosystems might emerge much earlier than expected.