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Molecular approach for assessing responses of microbial-feeding nematodes to burning and chronic nitrogen enrichment in a native grassland


Michael A. Herman, Fax: 1 785 532 6653; E-mail:


A substantial proportion of the primary productivity in grassland ecosystems is allocated belowground, sustaining an abundant and diverse community of microbes and soil invertebrates. These belowground communities drive many important ecosystem functions and are responsive to a variety of environmental changes. Nematodes, an abundant and diverse component of grassland soil communities, are particularly responsive to altered environmental conditions, such as those associated with reduced fire frequency and nitrogen enrichment, with the most consistent responses displayed by microbial-feeding nematodes. However, much of the available research characterizing nematode responses to environmental change has been carried out at the taxonomic level of family or by broad trophic categories (e.g. fungivores, bacterivores). The extent to which differential responses to environmental change occurs at the genus level or below is unclear. Therefore, the objective of this study was to use molecular methods to quantify the response of microbial-feeding nematodes, at the lowest levels of taxonomic resolution, to nitrogen enrichment and changes in fire frequency. Using sequencing and quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) probes for the 18S ribosomal RNA gene and the ITS1 region, we identified 19 microbial-feeding nematode taxa across four families. When nematodes were sampled across treatments, we found that some nematode taxa within a family responded similarly to nitrogen and burning treatments, while other taxa within the same family respond quite differently. Additionally, although nematodes from different families on average responded differently to nitrogen enrichment and burning, similar responses were seen in nematode taxa that span three taxonomic families. Thus, if nematodes are to be used as indicators of environmental change, care should be taken to assess the response at the lowest taxonomic level possible.