Drought and plant litter chemistry alter microbial gene expression and metabolite production

AA Malik* (Corresponding Author), T Swenson, C Weihe, EW Morrison, JBH Martiny, EL Brodie, TR Northen, SD Allison

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Citations (Scopus)


Drought represents a significant stress to microorganisms and is known to reduce microbial activity and organic matter decomposition in Mediterranean ecosystems. However, we lack a detailed understanding of the drought stress response of microbial decomposers. Here we present metatranscriptomic and metabolomic data on the physiological response of in situ microbial communities on plant litter to long-term drought in Californian grass and shrub ecosystems. We hypothesised that drought causes greater microbial allocation to stress tolerance relative to growth pathways. In grass litter, communities from the decade-long ambient and reduced precipitation treatments had distinct taxonomic and functional profiles. The most discernable physiological signatures of drought were production or uptake of compatible solutes to maintain cellular osmotic balance, and synthesis of capsular and extracellular polymeric substances as a mechanism to retain water. The results show a clear functional response to drought in grass litter communities with greater allocation to survival relative to growth that could affect decomposition under drought. In contrast, communities on chemically more diverse and complex shrub litter had smaller physiological differences in response to long-term drought but higher investment in resource acquisition traits across precipitation treatments, suggesting that the functional response to drought is constrained by substrate quality. Our findings suggest, for the first time in a field setting, a trade off between microbial drought stress tolerance, resource acquisition and growth traits in plant litter microbial communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2236-2247
Number of pages12
JournalThe ISME Journal
Issue number9
Early online date22 May 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020

Bibliographical note

We acknowledge funding from the US Department of Energy (DOE) Genomic Science Program, BER, Office of Science project DE-SC0016410. Part of this work was performed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, under DOE contract No. DE-AC02-05CH11231. RNA sequencing was carried out at the DNA Technologies and Expression Analysis Cores at the UC Davis Genome Center, supported by NIH Shared Instrumentation Grant 1S10OD010786-01. We thank Orange County Parks and the Irvine Ranch Conservancy for field site access.


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