Plant-microbial competition for nitrogen uncoupled from soil C:N ratios

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Abstract

A green house experiment was designed to test the idea that competition for inorganic nitrogen (N) between plants and heterotrophic microorganisms occurs in soils with high C:N ratios, qualifying for N limited microbial activity, but not at low C:N ratios. The short- term (24 h) N-15 uptake by the grass Festuca gigantea and microorganisms in planted and unplanted soils was determined, and the bacterial activity was measured by the H-3-thymidine incorporation technique. Two deciduous forest soils, with C:N-ratios of 20 and 31, and the 20 soil amended with litter to a C:N ratio of 34, were used. A novel and important part of the experimental design was the preparation of the unplanted reference soil with plants present until the competition assay started by the addition of N-15 labelled ammonium (NH4+) or nitrate (NO3-). The results suggested that plants and soil microorganisms competed for mineral N but under influence of other factors than the soil C:N ratio. The plants reduced the microbial uptake of NH4+ and NO3- in the soil with low C:N ratio, which also had the lowest bacterial activity. The plants had a larger N uptake than microorganisms in the two natural soils but smaller in the litter-amended, and their presence enhanced the bacterial activity, especially in the latter soil. The litter-amended soil with its high C:N ratio and easily decomposable C was the soil that best fulfilled the criteria for competition, including a net consumption of mineral N during the assay, the lowest plant uptake of mineral N due to the high N immobilization by microorganisms, and a reduced microbial N-15 uptake-to-bacterial activity in the presence of plants. Thus, other factors, such as the decomposability of the soil C and the bacterial activity, were more important than the soil C:N ratio to the outcome of plant-microbial competition for N.

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  • Biological Sciences
  • Ecology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1908-1916
JournalOikos
Volume118
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Publication categoryResearch
Peer-reviewedYes