Prevalent root-derived phenolics drive shifts in microbial community composition and prime decomposition in forest soil

Marie Zwetsloot*, Juana Muñoz Ucros, Kyle Wickings, Roland C. Wilhelm, Jed Sparks, Daniel H. Buckley, Taryn L. Bauerle

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

61 Citations (Scopus)


Phenolic compounds perform various functions in soil ranging from microbial substrate to toxin and form the basis of several plant-mediated processes. The aim of this study was to investigate how phenolics commonly exuded by tree roots influence soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition and interact with other labile forms of carbon (C) abundant in root exudates. Therefore, we performed a 38-day incubation experiment and assessed whether phenolic compounds (benzoic acid, caffeic acid and catechin) facilitated or inhibited SOM decomposition in a glucose-amended forest soil. Changes in decomposition, substrate use, fungal and bacterial community composition, and microbial abundance and activity were measured over time using 13C-stable-isotope tracing, DNA-based molecular methods and enzyme assays. Our findings showed that phenolics inhibited microbial activity and abundance to varying degrees. Yet, benzoic acid was the only compound producing a substantial priming effect leading to a 21% increase in SOM decomposition, which was amplified in glucose-amended soils. This stimulation in microbial activity was associated with an increase in β-1,4-glucosidase activity and the bacterial genera Paraburkholderia and Caballeronia of the Burkholderiaceae family. Phenolics drove microbial community shifts in glucose-amended soils with negligible interactive effects. In conclusion, phenolic priming of SOM decomposition is associated with microbial community shifts and amplified in the presence of glucose. This evidence emphasizes the need for considering phenolics and interactions among root exudates as priming mechanisms in the rhizosphere and other soil environments where aromatics and phenolic compounds are abundant.
Original languageEnglish
Article number107797
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Burkholderiaceae
  • Microbial hotpots
  • Priming
  • Root phenolics
  • Soil extracellular enzymes
  • Soil organic matter


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