Plant secondary metabolites: a key driver of litter decomposition and soil nutrient cycling

Mathilde Chomel* (Corresponding Author), Marie Guittonny-Larcheveque, Catherine Fernandez, Christiane Gallet, Annie DesRochers, David Paré, Benjamin Gordon Jackson, Virginie Baldy

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

231 Citations (Scopus)


1. A broad and diversi fi ed group of compounds, secondary metabolites, are known to govern species interactions in ecosystems. Recent studies have shown that secondary metabolites can also play a major role in ecosystem processes, such as plant succession or in the process of litter decomposition, by governing the interplay between plant matter and soil organisms.
2. We reviewed the ecological role of the three main classes of secondary metabolites and the methodological challenges and novel avenues for their study. We highlight emerging general patterns of the impacts of secondary metabolites on decomposer communities and litter decomposition and argue for the consideration of secondary compounds as key drivers of soil functioning and ecosystem functioning.
3. Synthesis. Gaining a greater understanding of plant – soil organisms relationships and underlying mechanisms, including the role of secondary metabolites, could improve our ability to understand ecosystem processes. We outline some promising directions for future research that would stimulate
studies aiming to understand the interactions of secondary metabolites across a range of spatio-temporal scales. Detailed mechanistic knowledge could help us to develop models for the process of litter decomposition and nutrient cycling in ecosystems and help us to predict future impacts of global changes on ecosystem functioning.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1527-1541
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Ecology
Issue number6
Early online date15 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2016

Bibliographical note

This research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC-CRSNG) through a Collaborative and Research Development grant to A.D. The authors thank William F.J. Parsons for the original English language correction and his comments on the manuscript, along with David Johnson for his helpful edits on the final version. Finally, we acknowledge the associate editor and referees for their comments on the manuscript.


  • ecosystem processes
  • functional traits
  • litter decomposition
  • phenolic compounds
  • plant-soil (below-ground) interactions
  • secondary metabolites
  • soil organisms
  • tannins
  • terpenes


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