Soil Bacteria and Global Carbon Cycle

Contribution of Soil Bacteria to Global Carbon Cycle

Soil micro-organisms act upon plant biomass to produce the soil organic matter. The organic matter contains a lot of carbon that makes a significant contribution to the global carbon cycle (Wieder et al., 2017). Understanding microbial systems in the soil is crucial for the improvement of the carbon cycle. However, little is known about the exact activities of various micro-organisms in the soil that lead to the production of carbon. In a recent study, Barnet et al (2021) discovered a useful method that can be used to track soil microbial communities in order to comprehend how they are involved in the processing of carbon.  The researchers specifically investigated the formation of soil organic matter by soil bacteria. They looked at different strategies that these microbes employ in assimilating carbon from plant materials. This study is important in the sense that it can enable climate change policy makers to make correct predictions about the contribution of soil micro-organisms to the process of global warming.

The new study was conducted by researchers based at Cornell University. It was funded by the United States Department of Energy. The purpose of this study was to determine the role that bacteria play in regulating the global carbon cycle. Carbon cycle generally refers to the biogeochemical cycle through which carbon elements and compounds are exchanged between the earth and the atmosphere (Worden et al., 2016; Wieder et al., 2017). The cycle plays an important role in the maintenance of carbon balance and climate stability. Soil bacteria are important for the health of the biosphere (Worden et al., 2016; Barnet et al., 2021). Just like other soil micro-organisms, they generate organic matter from the plant biomass. This matter is important for soil fertility. On the other hand, it contains carbon that is three times the amount that is available on the atmosphere (Barnet et al., 2021). Thus, bacteria control the amount of carbon released to the atmosphere from the soil.

In their study, Barnet et al (2021) conducted a probing experiment in which they used a multisubstrate DNA-stable isotope to track how bacteria assimilate carbon from different sources of bioavailability. The technique enabled the researchers to measure the contribution of microbes to the process of production of the soil organic matter. The researchers specifically measured carbon assimilation dynamics of different bacteria in the course of their interaction with different types of plant matter in the soil. During the study, a total of 1,286 bacteria taxa were tracked for 48 days. Nine common sources of carbon were used to determine the pattern of assimilation.  These were: cellulose, glucose, xylose, vanillin, palmitic acid, glycerol, oxalate, lactate, and amino acid mixture. Mineralization dynamics were measured and the amount of carbon dioxide produced was measured and recorded accordingly (Barnet et al., 2021).

From the results of the study, it was established that the assimilation of carbon by bacteria and degradation dynamics were influenced by the bioavailability of different carbon inputs (Barnet et al., 2021). All the bacteria tracked during the study period demonstrated the ability to incorporate carbon from the nine sources used. Most of the bacteria used in the experiment were different from cultivated isolates. The researchers also found that soil organic matter is produced through anabolic microbial metabolism (Barnet et al., 2021). This means that the fate of carbon in the soil is determined by its assimilation as well as turnover by bacteria and other micro-organisms. It was as well established that bacteria employ different strategies in the assimilation of carbon from plants (Barnet et al., 2021). This basically depends on their type. For instance, some bacteria grow rapidly and die within a short time. Such bacterial feed on sugars and other plant matter that contains carbon which can be accessed easily.  Other bacteria assimilate carbon which is hard to decompose and absorb.  Such microbes have the habit of growing slowly. They take time to consume materials. They are specialized to act that way on plant matter. The researchers put these types of bacteria into the category of guilds. This group contains organisms that access food materials that way. Further findings showed differences in guild structures (Barnet et al., 2021). Such differences demonstrated variations in biogeographical distribution of different types of bacterial both at global and continental levels.

The researchers used the findings of the study to conclude that there is a close linkage between carbon assimilation dynamics and the life-history strategies of soil micro-organisms (Barnet et al., 2021). Therefore, to understand the role of bacteria and other microbes in promoting the cycling of carbon on the global basis, it is important to first comprehend in situ growth and development dynamics of soil micro-organisms. This can enable one to see how the life-history theory can predict the activities of microbes in the carbon cycle. One of the most important recommendations that the researchers made is that there is need for future research to understand both ecological and genetic foundations of the life-history strategies of soil bacteria. Another important recommendation they came up with is the need for further research into the impact of soil PH on various microbial communities.


Barnett, S. E., Youngblut, N. D., Koechli, C. N., & Buckley, D. H. (2021). Multisubstrate DNA stable isotope probing reveals guild structure of bacteria that mediate soil carbon cycling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118 (47): e2115292118 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2115292118

Wieder, W. R., Hartman, M. D., Sulman, B. N., Wang, Y-P., Koven, C. D., & Bonan, G. B. (2017). Carbon cycle confidence and uncertainty: Exploring variation among soil biogeochemical models. Global Change Biology, 24 (4): 1563-1579.

Worden, A. Z., Follows, M. J., Giovannoni, S. J., Wilken, S., Zimmerman, A. E., & Keeling, P. J. (2016). Rethinking the marine carbon cycle: Factoring in the multifarious lifestyles of microbes. Science, 347 (6223): 735-745. doi: 10.1126/science.1257594

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