U.S. Department of Agriculture: Agricultural Research Service, Lincoln, Nebraska


Document Type


Date of this Version



SOIL, 2, 185–197, 2016


© Author(s) 2016.

Open access



Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) is a C4, perennial grass that is being developed as a bioenergy crop for the United States. While aboveground biomass production is well documented for switchgrass ecotypes (lowland, upland), little is known about the impact of plant belowground productivity on microbial communities down deep in the soil profiles. Microbial dynamics in deeper soils are likely to exert considerable control on ecosystem services, including C and nutrient cycles, due to their involvement in such processes as soil formation and ecosystem biogeochemistry. Differences in root biomass and rooting characteristics of switchgrass ecotypes could lead to distinct differences in belowground microbial biomass and microbial community composition. We quantified root abundance and root architecture and the associated microbial abundance, composition, and rhizodeposit C uptake for two switchgrass ecotypes using stable-isotope probing of microbial phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) after 13CO2 pulse–chase labeling. Kanlow, a lowland ecotype with thicker roots, had greater plant biomass above- and belowground (gm-2), greater root mass density (mg cm-3), and lower specific root length (mg-1) compared to Summer, an upland ecotype with finer root architecture. The relative abundance of bacterial biomarkers dominated microbial PLFA profiles for soils under both Kanlow and Summer (55.4 and 53.5%, respectively; P = 0.0367), with differences attributable to a greater relative abundance of Gram-negative bacteria in soils under Kanlow (18.1%) compared to soils under Summer (16.3%; P = 0.0455). The two ecotypes also had distinctly different microbial communities process rhizodeposit C: greater relative atom% 13C excess in Gram-negative bacteria (44.1±2.3 %) under the thicker roots of Kanlow and greater relative atom% 13C excess in saprotrophic fungi under the thinner roots of Summer (48.5±2.2 %). For bioenergy production systems, variation between switchgrass ecotypes could alter microbial communities and impact C sequestration and storage as well as potentially other belowground processes.