Soil microbial responses to fire and interacting global change factors in a California annual grassland

Kathryn M. Docherty, Teri C. Balser, Brendan J.M. Bohannan, Jessica L.M. Gutknecht

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

36 Scopus citations


Wildfire in California annual grasslands is an important ecological disturbance and ecosystem control. Regional and global climate changes that affect aboveground biomass will alter fire-related nutrient loading and promote increased frequency and severity of fire in these systems. This can have long-term impacts on soil microbial dynamics and nutrient cycling, particularly in N-limited systems such as annual grasslands. We examined the effects of a low-severity fire on microbial biomass and specific microbial lipid biomarkers over 3 years following a fire at the Jasper Ridge Global Change Experiment. We also examined the impact of fire on the abundance of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB), specifically Nitrosospira Cluster 3a ammonia-oxidizers, and nitrification rates 9 months post-fire. Finally, we examined the interactive effects of fire and three other global change factors (N-deposition, precipitation and CO 2) on plant biomass and soil microbial communities for three growing seasons after fire. Our results indicate that a low-severity fire is associated with earlier season primary productivity and higher soil-NH 4 + concentrations in the first growing season following fire. Belowground productivity and total microbial biomass were not influenced by fire. Diagnostic microbial lipid biomarkers, including those for Gram-positive bacteria and Gram-negative bacteria, were reduced by fire 9- and 21-months post-fire, respectively. All effects of fire were indiscernible by 33-months post-fire, suggesting that above and belowground responses to fire do not persist in the long-term and that these grassland communities are resilient to fire disturbance. While N-deposition increased soil NH 4 +, and thus available NH 3, AOB abundance, nitrification rates and Cluster 3a AOB, similar increases in NH 3 in the fire plots did not affect AOB or nitrification. We hypothesize that this difference in response to N-addition involves a mediation of P-limitation as a result of fire, possibly enhanced by increased plant competition and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi-plant associations after fire.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)63-83
Number of pages21
Issue number1-3
StatePublished - Jul 1 2012


  • Fire
  • Global change
  • Grassland
  • PLFA
  • Soil microbiology

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