Continental-scale patterns of extracellular enzyme activity in the subsoil: An overlooked reservoir of microbial activity

Nicholas C. Dove, Keshav Arogyaswamy, Sharon A. Billings, Jon K. Botthoff, Chelsea J. Carey, Caitlin Cisco, Jared L. Deforest, Dawson Fairbanks, Noah Fierer, Rachel E. Gallery, Jason P. Kaye, Kathleen A. Lohse, Mia R. Maltz, Emilio Mayorga, Jennifer Pett-Ridge, Wendy H. Yang, Stephen C. Hart, Emma L. Aronson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Chemical stabilization of microbial-derived products such as extracellular enzymes (EE) onto mineral surfaces has gained attention as a possibly important mechanism leading to the persistence of soil organic carbon (SOC). While the controls on EE activities and their stabilization in the surface soil are reasonably well-understood, how these activities change with soil depth and possibly diverge from those at the soil surface due to distinct physical, chemical, and biotic conditions remains unclear. We assessed EE activity to a depth of 1 m (10 cm increments) in 19 soil profiles across the Critical Zone Observatory Network, which represents a wide range of climates, soil orders, and vegetation types. For all EEs, activities per mass of soil correlated positively with microbial biomass (MB) and SOC, and all three of these variables decreased logarithmically with depth (p < 0.05). Across all sites, over half of the potential EE activities per mass soil consistently occurred below 20 cm for all measured EEs. Activities per unit MB or SOC were substantially higher at depth (soils below 20 cm accounted for 80% of whole-profile EE activity), suggesting an accumulation of stabilized (i.e. mineral sorbed) EEs in subsoil horizons. The pronounced enzyme stabilization in subsurface horizons was corroborated by mixed-effects models that showed a significant, positive relationship between clay concentration and MB-normalized EE activities in the subsoil. Furthermore, the negative relationships between soil C, N, and P and C-, N-, and P-acquiring EEs found in the surface soil decoupled below 20 cm, which could have also been caused by EE stabilization. This finding suggests that EEs may not reflect soil nutrient availabilities deeper in the soil profile. Taken together, our results suggest that deeper soil horizons hold a significant reservoir of EEs, and that the controls of subsoil EEs differ from their surface soil counterparts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1040A1
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2020


  • N-acetylglucosaminidase
  • a-glucosidase
  • acid phosphatase
  • critical zone
  • ecological stoichiometry
  • extracellular enzymes
  • microbial ecology
  • phospholipid fatty acids
  • subsoil

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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