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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 July 2021

Yishan Jiang
State Key Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry and Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Joint Laboratory for Environmental Pollution and Control, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, 510640, China CAS Center for Excellence in Deep Earth Science, Guangzhou, 510640, China Academy of Green Manufacturing Engineering, Wuhan University of Science and Technology, Wuhan, 430081, China
Dayi Zhang
School of Environment, Tsinghua University, Beijing, 100084, China
Nicholas J Ostle
Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancashire, LA14YQ, UK
Chunling Luo*
State Key Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry and Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Joint Laboratory for Environmental Pollution and Control, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, 510640, China CAS Center for Excellence in Deep Earth Science, Guangzhou, 510640, China College of Natural Resources and Environment, South China Agricultural University, Guangzhou, 510642, China
Yan Wang
School of Environmental Science & Technology, Dalian University of Technology, Dalian, 116024, China
Ping Ding
CAS Center for Excellence in Deep Earth Science, Guangzhou, 510640, China State Key Laboratory of Isotope Geochemistry, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, 510640, China
Zhineng Cheng
State Key Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry and Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Joint Laboratory for Environmental Pollution and Control, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, 510640, China CAS Center for Excellence in Deep Earth Science, Guangzhou, 510640, China
Chengde Shen
CAS Center for Excellence in Deep Earth Science, Guangzhou, 510640, China State Key Laboratory of Isotope Geochemistry, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, 510640, China
Gan Zhang*
State Key Laboratory of Organic Geochemistry and Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Joint Laboratory for Environmental Pollution and Control, Guangzhou Institute of Geochemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Guangzhou, 510640, China CAS Center for Excellence in Deep Earth Science, Guangzhou, 510640, China
*Corresponding authors. Emails:,
*Corresponding authors. Emails:,


The function and change of global soil carbon (C) reserves in natural ecosystems are key regulators of future carbon-climate coupling. Microbes play a critical role in soil carbon cycling and yet there is poor understanding of their roles and C metabolism flexibility in many ecosystems. We wanted to determine whether vegetation type and climate zone influence soil microbial community composition (fungi and bacteria) and carbon resource preference. We used a biomarker (phospholipid fatty acids, PLFAs), natural abundance 13C and 14C probing approach to measure soil microbial composition and C resource use, along a 1900–4167-m elevation gradient on Mount Gongga (7556 m asl), China. Mount Gongga has a vertical mean annual temperature gradient of 1.2–10.1°C and a diversity of typical vegetation zones in the Tibetan Plateau. Soils were sampled at 10 locations along the gradient capturing distinct vegetation types and climate zones from lowland subtropical-forest to alpine-meadow. PLFA results showed that microbial communities were composed of 2.1–51.7% bacteria and 2.0–23.2% fungi across the elevation gradient. Microbial biomass was higher and the ratio of soil fungi to bacteria (F/B) was lower in forest soils compared to meadow soils. δ13C varied between −33‰ to −17‰ with C3 plant carbon sources dominant across the gradient. Soil organic carbon (SOC) turnover did not vary among three soils we measured from three forest types (i.e., evergreen broadleaved subtropical, mixed temperate, coniferous alpine) and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) turnover decreased with soil elevation. Forest soil microbial PLFA 14C and δ13C measurements showed that forest type and climate were related to different microbial C use. The 14C values of microbial PLFAs i15, a15, 16:1, br17 decreased with elevation while those of C16:0, cyC17, and cyC19 did not show much difference among three forest ecosystems. Bacteria and bacillus represented by C16:1 and brC17 showed considerable microbial C metabolism flexibility and tended to use ancient carbon at higher altitudes. Anaerobes represented by cyC17 and cyC19 showed stronger C metabolism selectivity. Our findings reveal specific C source differences between and within soil microbial groups along elevation gradients.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press for the Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona

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