Canadian Forest Service Publications

Plant secondary metabolites: a key driver of litter decomposition and soil nutrient cycling. 2016. Chomel, M.; Guittonny-Larchevêque, M.; Fernandez, C.; Gallet, C; DesRochers, A.; Paré, D.; Jackson, B.G.; Baldy, V. J. Ecol. 104: 1527-1541.

Year: 2016

Available from: Laurentian Forestry Centre

Catalog ID: 37070

Language: English

CFS Availability: PDF (request by e-mail)


  1. A broad and diversified group of compounds, secondary metabolites, are known to govern species interactions in ecosystems. Recent studies have shown that secondary metabolites can also play a major role in ecosystem processes, such as plant succession or in the process of litter decomposition, by governing the interplay between plant matter and soil organisms.

  2. We reviewed the ecological role of the three main classes of secondary metabolites and the methodological challenges and novel avenues for their study. We highlight emerging general patterns of the impacts of secondary metabolites on decomposer communities and litter decomposition and argue for the consideration of secondary compounds as key drivers of soil functioning and ecosystem functioning.

  3. Synthesis. Gaining a greater understanding of plant–soil organisms relationships and underlying mechanisms, including the role of secondary metabolites, could improve our ability to understand ecosystem processes. We outline some promising directions for future research that would stimulate studies aiming to understand the interactions of secondary metabolites across a range of spatio-temporal scales. Detailed mechanistic knowledge could help us to develop models for the process of litter decomposition and nutrient cycling in ecosystems and help us to predict future impacts of global changes on ecosystem functioning.

Plain Language Summary

In this study, the researchers showed the key role of three groups of chemical compounds (secondary metabolites) in soil litter decomposition, mainly regarding their impacts on the activity of organisms that live in it. Their actions also have larger-scale impacts, namely on the nutrient cycle and, eventually, on ecosystem functions and structure.

This study aimed to provide an overview of the knowledge acquired regarding the ecology of secondary metabolites, to reexamine their role in litter decomposition, and to determine their influence on decomposers and their impacts on soil and ecosystems.

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