Although soil microorganisms play a central role in the soil processes that determine nutrient availability and productivity of forest ecosystems, we are only beginning to understand how microbial communities are shaped by environmental factors and how the structure and function of soil microbial communities in turn influence rates of key soil processes. Here we compare the structure and function of soil microbial communities in seven mature, undisturbed forest types across a range of regional climates in British Columbia and Alberta, and examine the variation in community composition within forest types. We collected the forest floor fermentation (F) and humus (H) layers and upper 10 cm of mineral soil at 3 sites in each of seven forest types (corresponding to seven Biogeoclimatic zones) in both spring and summer. Phospholipid fatty acid analysis was used to investigate the structure of soil microbial communities and total soil microbial biomass; potential activities of extra-cellular enzymes indicated the functional potential of the soil microbial community in each layer at each site.
Multivariate analysis indicated that both structure and enzyme activities of soil microbial communities differed among the forest types, and significantly separated along the regional climate gradient, despite high local variation. Soil moisture and organic matter contents were most closely related to microbial community characteristics. Forests in the Ponderosa Pine and Mountain Hemlock zones were distinct from other forests and from each other when comparing potential enzyme activities and had the most extreme moisture and temperature values. Forest floors from the hot and dry Ponderosa Pine forests were associated with enzymes characteristic of water-stress and high concentrations of phenols and other recalcitrant compounds. The wet and cold Mountain Hemlock forests were associated with low enzyme activity.
An influence of tree species was apparent at the three sites within the Coastal Western Hemlock zone; high bacterial:fungal biomass ratios were found under western redcedar (Thuja plicata) which also had high pH and base-cation levels, and under Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), which had high N availability. Potential activities enzymes differed among soil layers: potential activities of phenol oxidase and peroxidase were highest in mineral soil, whereas phosphatase, betaglucosidase, NAGase, sulfatase, xylosidase and cellobiohydrolase were highest in the forest floors.