Thermodynamic theory explains the temperature optima of soil microbial processes and high Q10 values at low temperatures

Louis A Schipper, Joanne K Hobbs, Susanna Rutledge, Vickery L Arcus

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Our current understanding of the temperature response of biological processes in soil is based on the Arrhenius equation. This predicts an exponential increase in rate as temperature rises, whereas in the laboratory and in the field, there is always a clearly identifiable temperature optimum for all microbial processes. In the laboratory, this has been explained by denaturation of enzymes at higher temperatures, and in the field, the availability of substrates and water is often cited as critical factors. Recently, we have shown that temperature optima for enzymes and microbial growth occur in the absence of denaturation and that this is a consequence of the unusual heat capacity changes associated with enzymes. We have called this macromolecular rate theory - MMRT (Hobbs et al., , ACS Chem. Biol. 8:2388). Here, we apply MMRT to a wide range of literature data on the response of soil microbial processes to temperature with a focus on respiration but also including different soil enzyme activities, nitrogen and methane cycling. Our theory agrees closely with a wide range of experimental data and predicts temperature optima for these microbial processes. MMRT also predicted high relative temperature sensitivity (as assessed by Q10 calculations) at low temperatures and that Q10 declined as temperature increases in agreement with data synthesis from the literature. Declining Q10 and temperature optima in soils are coherently explained by MMRT which is based on thermodynamics and heat capacity changes for enzyme-catalysed rates. MMRT also provides a new perspective, and makes new predictions, regarding the absolute temperature sensitivity of ecosystems - a fundamental component of models for climate change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3578-86
Number of pages9
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena
  • Climate Change
  • Cold Temperature
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Soil
  • Soil Microbiology
  • Thermodynamics


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