Microbial diversity, producer–decomposer interactions and ecosystem processes: a theoretical model

Michel Loreau

Abstract

Interactions between the diversity of primary producers and that of decomposers — the two key functional groups that form the basis of all ecosystems — might have major consequences on the functioning of depauperate ecosystems. I present a simple ecosystem model in which primary producers (plants) and decomposers (microbes) are linked through material cycling. The model considers a diversity of plant organic compounds and a diversity of microbial species. Nutrient recycling efficiency from organic compounds to decomposers is then the key parameter that controls ecosystem processes (primary productivity, secondary productivity, producer biomass and decomposer biomass). The model predicts that microbial diversity has a positive effect on nutrient recycling efficiency and ecosystem processes through either greater intensity of microbial exploitation of organic compounds or functional niche complementarity, much like in plants. Microbial niche breadth and overlap should not affect ecosystem processes unless they increase the number of organic compounds that are decomposed. In contrast, the model predicts that plant organic compound diversity can only have a negative effect or, at best, no effect on ecosystem processes, at least in a constant environment. This creates a tension between the effects of plant diversity and microbial diversity on ecosystem functioning, which may explain some recent experimental results.