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As a primary limiting factor in arid and semiarid regions, precipitation strongly influences soil microbial properties. However, the patterns and mechanisms of soil microbial responses to precipitation have not been well documented. In this study, changes in soil microorganisms along an experimental precipitation gradient with seven levels of precipitation manipulation (i.e., ambient precipitation as a control and ±20%, ±40% and ±60% of ambient precipitation) were explored in a semiarid temperate steppe in northern China. Soil microbial biomass carbon and respiration as well as the ratio of fungal to bacterial biomass varied along the experimental precipitation gradient and peaked under the +40% precipitation treatment. The shifts in microbial community composition could be largely attributable to the changes in soil water and nutrient availability. The metabolic quotient increased (indicating reduced carbon use efficiency) with increasing precipitation due to the leaching of dissolved organic carbon. The relative contributions of microbial respiration to soil and ecosystem respiration increased with increasing precipitation, suggesting that heterotrophic respiration will be more sensitive than autotrophic respiration if precipitation increases in the temperate steppe as predicted under future climate-change scenarios.