The role of phosphorus limitation in shaping soil bacterial communities and their metabolic capabilities

Angela M. Oliverio, Andrew Bissett, Krista McGuire, Kristin Saltonstall, Benjamin L. Turner, Noah Fierer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

67 Scopus citations


Phosphorus (P) is an essential nutrient that is often in limited supply, with P availability constraining biomass production in many terrestrial ecosystems. Despite decades of work on plant responses to P deficiency and the importance of soil microbes to terrestrial ecosystem processes, how soil microbes respond to, and cope with, P deficiencies remains poorly understood. We studied 583 soils from two independent sample sets that each span broad natural gradients in extractable soil P and collectively represent diverse biomes, including tropical forests, temperate grass-lands, and arid shrublands. We paired marker gene and shotgun metagenomic analyses to determine how soil bacterial and archaeal communities respond to differences in soil P availability and to detect corresponding shifts in functional attributes. We identified microbial taxa that are consistently responsive to extractable soil P, with those taxa found in low P soils being more likely to have traits typical of oligo-trophic life history strategies. Using environmental niche modeling of genes and gene pathways, we found an enriched abundance of key genes in low P soils linked to the carbon-phosphorus (C-P) lyase and phosphonotase degradation pathways, along with key components of the high-affinity phosphate-specific transporter (Pst) and phosphate regulon (Pho) systems. Taken together, these analyses suggest that catabolism of phosphonates is an important strategy used by bacteria to scavenge phosphate in P-limited soils. Surprisingly, these same pathways are important for bacterial growth in P-limited marine waters, highlighting the shared metabolic strategies used by both terrestrial and marine microbes to cope with P limitation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere01718-20
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • C-P lyase pathway
  • Organophosphonate degradation
  • Phosphate starvation
  • Phosphorus limitation
  • Soil microbiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Virology


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