A theoretical analysis of microbial eco-physiological and diffusion limitations to carbon cycling in drying soils

S. Manzoni, S. M. Schaeffer, G. Katul, A. Porporato, J. P. Schimel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

214 Scopus citations


Soil microbes face highly variable moisture conditions that force them to develop adaptations to tolerate or avoid drought. Drought conditions also limit the supply of vital substrates by inhibiting diffusion in dry conditions. How these biological and physical factors affect carbon (C) cycling in soils is addressed here by means of a novel process-based model. The model accounts for different microbial response strategies, including different modes of osmoregulation, drought avoidance through dormancy, and extra-cellular enzyme production. Diffusion limitations induced by low moisture levels for both extra-cellular enzymes and solutes are also described and coupled to the biological responses. Alternative microbial life-history strategies, each encoded in a set of model parameters, are considered and their effects on C cycling assessed both in the long term (steady state analysis) and in the short term (transient analysis during soil drying and rewetting). Drought resistance achieved by active osmoregulation requiring large C investment is not useful in soils where growth in dry conditions is limited by C supply. In contrast, dormancy followed by rapid reactivation upon rewetting seems to be a better strategy in such conditions. Synthesizing more enzymes may also be advantageous because it causes larger accumulation of depolymerized products during dry periods that can be used upon rewetting. Based on key model parameters, a spectrum of life-history strategies thus emerges, providing a possible classification of microbial responses to drought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)69-83
Number of pages15
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Jun 2014
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


  • Decomposition
  • Dormancy
  • Heterotrophic respiration
  • Microbial biomass
  • Osmoregulation
  • Soil moisture
  • Water stress


Dive into the research topics of 'A theoretical analysis of microbial eco-physiological and diffusion limitations to carbon cycling in drying soils'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this