Disturbance alters the forest soil microbiome

Elle J. Bowd, Sam C. Banks, Andrew Bissett, Tom W. May, David B. Lindenmayer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Billions of microorganisms perform critical below-ground functions in all terrestrial ecosystems. While largely invisible to the naked eye, they support all higher lifeforms, form symbiotic relationships with ~90% of terrestrial plant species, stabilize soils, and facilitate biogeochemical cycles. Global increases in the frequency of disturbances are driving major changes in the structure and function of forests. However, despite their functional significance, the disturbance responses of forest microbial communities are poorly understood. Here, we explore the influence of disturbance on the soil microbiome (archaea, fungi and bacteria) of some of the world's tallest and most carbon-dense forests, the Mountain Ash forests of south-eastern Australia. From 80 sites, we identified 23,277 and 19,056 microbial operational taxonomic units from the 0–10 cm and 20–30 cm depths of soil respectively. From this extensive data set, we found the diversity and composition of these often cryptic communities has been altered by human and natural disturbance events. For instance, the diversity of ectomycorrhizal fungi declined with clearcut logging, the diversity of archaea declined with salvage logging, and bacterial diversity and overall microbial diversity declined with the number of fires. Moreover, we identified key associations between edaphic (soil properties), environmental (slope, elevation) and spatial variables and the composition of all microbial communities. Specifically, we found that soil pH, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, iron and nitrate were associated with the composition of all microbial communities. In a period of widespread degradation of global forest ecosystems, our findings provide an important and timely insight into the disturbance responses of soil microbial communities, which may influence key ecological functions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)419-447
Number of pages29
JournalMolecular Ecology
Issue number2
Early online dateOct 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


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