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Soil microbial respiration in a warming world

Monday, July 2, 2012, by Lauren Alteio
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This summer, I am working with Jerry Melillo, Lindsay Scott, and members of the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory to analyze the activity of soil microbes in response to soil warming. We study the extremely dynamic microenvironments within the soil to understand how the health of forest ecosystems can be affected by global climate change. 

Soil plots at Prospect Hill have been heated for twenty-one years, meaning the project is older than me! Initially in the project, scientists saw that the amount of carbon dioxide released through microbial respiration was greater in the heated plots than in the control plots. After about ten years, the difference in the amount of carbon dioxide began to decrease. Now, the difference in carbon dioxide is increasing again and scientists are stumped as to why this is happening. My role is to determine if the microbial community’s ability to metabolize carbon compounds has shifted from simpler, more labile carbon compounds to the more complex, or recalcitrant compounds within the soil based on the enzymes they are producing.

I spend my time collecting soil samples, homogenizing and plating soil slurries (soil smoothies, anyone?), and reading the fluorescence of the enzyme activity using a microplate reader.

The methodology that I am using in my enzyme assays hasn’t been completely perfected yet, so in addition to answering questions about the soil microbial population, I am also involved in refining the methods that will be used. This is sometimes a bit frustrating, as the data we get is a little rough to interpret. The work that I am doing this summer will become a part of the ongoing data set of this experiment. Hopefully, it will help scientists to get closer to answering questions about the microbial populations in forest soils.

As a rising junior student, I am still surprised that I have been given this amazing opportunity! It has taught me the importance of networking with scientists, as well as improving my laboratory skills. I am learning something new every day about what it is truly like to work in the field of science. I look forward to more interesting results, as well as intense ultimate Frisbee games, and weekend excursions to mountain summits. I am excited for what the future holds, and I hope that this summer continues to be the best one of my life so far!