Behind the scenes of the Maestre lab (III)

We continue with the series of posts describing the “behind the scenes” of the research presented in the articles we publish (you can find the first posts of this series here and here). In this case we will talk about a paper published in the 30th October issue of Nature entitled “Decoupling of soil nutrient cycles as a function of aridity in global drylands”, led by our post-doctoral research associate Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo (that very soon will leave us to join the lab of Brajesh Singh in Australia). The paper has already attracted some attention, with more than 4100 page views so far and multiple news in newspapers and webpages from around the world (check here for a compilation of some of these news).

Manuel Delgado-Baquerizo, the lead author of this paper

These are the Q & A for Manuel:
What is this paper about?

We collected soil samples from 224 dryland sites around the world to evaluate the effect of aridity on the balance between the content of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil.  

What are the main key messages of this article?

This study shows that aridity has a negative impact on the concentration of organic carbon and total nitrogen, but a positive effect on the concentration of inorganic phosphorus. Aridity can reduce plant cover, which may favor the dominance of physical processes (such as rock weathering, an important source of phosphorus to ecosystems) over biological processes (such as litter decomposition) that provide carbon and nitrogen. This fact suggests that any predicted increase in aridity with climate change could affect the balance of the carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles in drylands worldwide, negatively affecting the services provided by these ecosystems.

How did you come up with the idea of conducting this study?

The importance of biological control of nutrient cycling relative to geochemical control has been shown to change with ecosystem development. For example, during the earliest stages of ecosystem succession, a relative prevalence of geochemical control on nutrient cycling means that P is made available by mechanical rock weathering, but at these stages N and C are scarce. This promotes an uncoupling in the C, N and P cycles relative to the nutritional requirements for plants. However, and despite the importance of these cycles for ecosystem functioning and human welfare, it is largely unknown how predicted increases in aridity may influence the balance between C, N and P concentrations in soils, and no global field studies had yet been conducted on this topic. This was my main motivation to explore the database available from the BIOCOM project, led by Fernando Maestre, which had the kind of data needed to conduct this study.

What have you enjoyed the most during the “life cycle” of this article (from its conception to its publication)?

This manuscript is the conclusion of many hours of work during the last years, and was an important part of my PhD research. I can say that I really enjoy the whole process of writing this article, most likely because of the people that I met and the life experiences that I got during these years. I was fortunate to join the BIOCOM soil sampling crew along Spain with Miguel García, Javier Gutiérrez-Illán and J.L. Quero, as we had an unforgetteable and really funny summer fieldtrip throughout the Spanish drylands to collect soils for this project. To conduct this study, I had to learn structural equation modeling with Matt Bowker in Arizona, which was a challenging experience but also a trip full of adventure that I had the great luck to share with the awesome Santi Soliveres. Besides, working with Fernando Maestre and Antonio Gallardo in this article, as in many others, was always a great pleasure and enriching experience. I also got the chance to discuss these results with Matt Wallenstein in Colorado, from where I got countless memories. As a whole, this article have made me grow as a scientist, and getting it done has been a great challenge!
What have been the major difficulties you have encountered when conducting the research reflected in this article?

Well, I had never written a manuscript for Nature before. This journal has a very specific format style, which is quite different from the style I was used to. Adapting my writing style for Nature was a big challenge that I had to face during the process. In addition, selecting and justifying the most adequate proxies of total and available carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus variables in this study was also a pretty challenging experience.

Publishing today is really hard, particularly in top journals like Nature. How has been your experience with this publication?

The whole process has been very nice. When Fernando suggested me to send the manuscript to Nature as our first choice, I doubted about our possibilities, as I already know that competition for space there is really stiff (stealing pages from the discoveries made by a robot on Mars, all the high-profile biomedical stuff and at the end even talking trash is not easy!). Jokes aside, we got the luck to have our manuscript revised by Marten Scheffer, Nicholas J. Gotelli and Richard Bardgett before submitting it (I really appreciate their help!), who also encouraged us to submit it to Nature. The revision process was very constructive. The three reviewers and the editior, Juliane Mössinger, had great suggestions and comments to improve our manuscript, and after three rounds of revisions the ms really improved compared to the version originally submitted. In addition, the whole editing process once the ms was accepted was very fast and professional. Overall, publishing this article has been a great and very positive experience.