The effects of substrate composition, quantity, and diversity on microbial activity

Daniel L. Hernández, Sarah E. Hobbie

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

135 Scopus citations


Variation in organic matter inputs caused by differences in plant community composition has been shown to affect microbial activity, although the mechanisms controlling these effects are not entirely understood. In this study we determine the effects of variation in substrate composition, quantity, and diversity on soil extracellular enzyme activity and respiration in laboratory microcosms. Microbial respiration responded predictably to substrate composition and quantity and was maximized by the addition of labile substrates and greater substrate quantity. However, there was no effect of substrate diversity on respiration. Substrate composition significantly affected enzyme activity. Phosphatase activity was maximized with addition of C and N together, supporting the common notion that addition of limiting resources increases investment in enzymes to acquire other limiting nutrients. Chitinase activity was maximized with the addition of chitin, suggesting that some enzymes may be stimulated by the addition of the substrate they degrade. In contrast, activities of glucosidase and peptidase were maximized by the addition of the products of these enzymes, glucose and alanine, respectively, for reasons that are unclear. Substrate diversity and quantity also stimulated enzyme activity for three and four of the six enzymes assayed, respectively. We found evidence of complementary (i.e., non-additive) effects of additions of different substrates on activity for three of the six enzymes assayed; for the remaining enzymes, effects of adding a greater diversity of substrates appeared to arise from the substrate-specific effects of those substrates included in the high-diversity treatment. Finally, in a comparison of measures of microbial respiration and enzyme activity, we found that labile C and nutrient-acquiring enzymes, not those involved in the degradation of recalcitrant compounds, were the best predictors of respiration rates. These results suggest that while composition, quantity, and diversity of inputs to microbial communities all affect microbial enzyme activity, the mechanisms controlling these relationships are unique for each particular enzyme.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)397-411
Number of pages15
JournalPlant and Soil
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2010


  • Carbon
  • Extracellular enzyme activity
  • Microbial respiration
  • Nitrogen
  • Soil microorganisms


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