Microbial functional changes mark irreversible course of Tibetan grassland degradation

Andreas Breidenbach, Per-Marten Schleuss, Shibin Liu, Dominik Schneider, Michaela A. Dippold, Tilman de la Haye, Georg Miehe, Felix Heitkamp, Elke Seeber, K.E. Mason-Jones, Xingliang Xu, Yang Huanming, Jianchu Xu, Tsechoe Dorij, Matthias Gube, Helge Norf, Jutta Meier, Georg Guggenberger, Yakov Kuzyakov, Sandra Spielvogel*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


The Tibetan Plateau’s Kobresia pastures store 2.5% of the world’s soil organic carbon (SOC). Climate change and overgrazing render their topsoils vulnerable to degradation, with SOC stocks declining by 42% and nitrogen (N) by 33% at severely degraded sites. We resolved these losses into erosion accounting for two-thirds, and decreased carbon (C) input and increased SOC mineralization accounting for the other third, and confirmed these results by comparison with a meta-analysis of 594 observations. The microbial community responded to the degradation through altered taxonomic composition and enzymatic activities. Hydrolytic enzyme activities were reduced, while degradation of the remaining recalcitrant soil organic matter by oxidative enzymes was accelerated, demonstrating a severe shift in microbial functioning. This may irreversibly alter the world´s largest alpine pastoral ecosystem by diminishing its C sink function and nutrient cycling dynamics, negatively impacting local food security, regional water quality and climate.
Original languageEnglish
Article number2681
Pages (from-to)2681
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2022


  • microbiome
  • soil
  • degradation
  • carbon
  • Grassland
  • Microbiota
  • Soil Microbiology
  • Ecosystem
  • Carbon/analysis
  • Soil
  • Nitrogen/analysis
  • Tibet


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