Microbial-driven decomposition of plant residues is integral to carbon sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems. Actinobacteria, one of the most widely distributed bacterial phyla in soils, are known for their ability to degrade plant residues in vitro. However, their in situ importance and specific activity across contrasting ecological environments are not known. Here, we conducted three field experiments with buried straw in combination with microcosm experiments with C-straw in paddy soils under different soil fertility levels to reveal the ecophysiological roles of Actinobacteria in plant residue decomposition. While accounting for only 4.6% of the total bacterial abundance, the Actinobacteria encoded 16% of total abundance of carbohydrate-active enzymes (CAZymes). The taxonomic and functional compositions of the Actinobacteria were, surprisingly, relatively stable during straw decomposition. Slopes of linear regression models between straw chemical composition and Actinobacterial traits were flatter than those for other taxonomic groups at both local and regional scales due to holding genes encoding for full set of CAZymes, nitrogenases, and antibiotic synthetases. Ecological co-occurrence network and C-based metagenomic analyses both indicated that their importance for straw degradation increased in less fertile soils, as both links between Actinobacteria and other community members and relative abundances of their functional genes increased with decreasing soil fertility. This study provided DNA-based evidence that non-dominant Actinobacteria plays a key ecophysiological role in plant residue decomposition as their members possess high proportions of CAZymes and as a group maintain a relatively stable presence during plant residue decomposition both in terms of taxonomic composition and functional roles. Their importance for decomposition was more pronounced in less fertile soils where their possession functional genes and interspecies interactions stood out more. Our work provides new ecophysiological angles for the understanding of the importance of Actinobacteria in global carbon cycling. Video abstract.