We investigated the phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) diversity and enzyme activities in soils from the volcano, Mt. Etna (Sicily). The soils were at sites which have been developing for different periods of time and have formed in volcanic lava of differing ages that have been supplemented with volcanic ejecta from subsequent eruptions. However, the plant communities indicated a marked successional difference between the sites and we have used this as a proxy for developmental stage. We have compared the structural and functional properties of the microbial communities in soils from the two sites and tested experimentally the hypothesis that the more diverse community was more resistant and resilient to disturbance. The experimental disturbance imposed was heating (60 degrees C for 48 h) and the recovery of enzyme activities (beta-glucosidase, acid phosphatase and arylsulfatase) and structural properties (PLFA profiles) were then followed over six months. The microbial community in the soil from the older site was more structurally diverse and had a larger total PLFA concentration before disturbance than that of the soil from the younger site. The older soil community was not more resistant and resilient following an environmental disturbance as the younger soil community was equally or more resistant and resilient for all parameters. Changes in enzyme activities following disturbance were almost entirely attributable to changes in biomass (total PLFA). (C) 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.