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Title: Structural diversity and decomposition functions of volcanic soils at different stages of development
Author: Shillam, Laura-Lee
ISNI:       0000 0004 2683 5989
Awarding Body: University of Stirling
Current Institution: University of Stirling
Date of Award: 2008
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During a volcanic eruption, the extrusion of lava onto surfaces destroys biological activity creating virgin land surfaces. Through time this new land will be subject to soil formation and colonisation under relatively similar climatic conditions and parent materials. Soils formed from volcanic deposits present a unique opportunity to study microbial community development. Soils at different developmental stages and differing in vegetation cover were selected from four locations on the slopes of Mount Etna, Sicily. Three main research objectives were determined in order to test the hypothesis that the microbial communities from soils at later stages of development would have a greater biomass, be more diverse, be more efficient at utilising carbon sources and recover from an environmental disturbance at a greater rate. A field experiment was conducted to ascertain the long term in situ catabolic abilities of the microbial communities in each soil and to establish the effects of litter mixing on decomposition rate. Litter bags containing either Genista aetnensis (Etnean Broom), Pinus nigra (Corsican Pine) or a mixture of the two were buried at each of the sites and their decomposition monitored over a 2.5 year period. PLFA diversity, community composition and function was assessed for each of the soils. The soils were also subject to a disturbance and the recovery of key community parameters was monitored over a six month period in order to establish each soil community’s resistance and resilience to disturbance. A laboratory experiment was conducted in order to investigate functional diversity and decomposition functions of each soil community using a range of simple and complex substrates. The relationship between PLFA diversity and functional diversity was also investigated. No correlation was found between soil C and N contents, microbial biomass or soil respiration and soil developmental stage and there was no detectable difference in litter bag mass loss between the soil types. No non- additive effects were noted in mixed litters. The more developed soil had a greater PLFA diversity and PLFA biomass however the more developed soil was not more resistant or resilient to disturbance. Developed soils showed greater catabolic diversity compared with less developed soils broadly correlating with PLFA diversity. Despite increased PLFA diversity and functional diversity in the more developed soils, residue decomposition in situ was unaffected. Reduced PLFA diversity and community complexity did not result in reduced function. Soils at different developmental stages had similar catabolic responses and were able to degrade simple and complex substrates to a similar degree. Microbial diversity in soil has the potential to be very high thus resulting in a high rate of functional redundancy i.e. many species within the same community which have the same functional role. It is possible that only a few key functional groups present within the soil community contribute to the main decomposition function within the soil and were able to maintain function during perturbation. Both Etna soils had similar PLFA’s present in similar concentrations and these groups in general were maintained during disturbance. This suggests that total microbial community diversity may not be as important to community function as the presence of key functional groups.
Supervisor: Hopkins, David W. Sponsor: Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: Soil ; Diversity ; Succession ; Microorganism ; Soil Microbiology ; Soils Analysis ; Soils Sampling ; Volcanic hazard analysis ; Etna, Mound (Italy)