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Detecting microbial N-limitation in tussock tundra soil: Implications for Arctic soil organic carbon cycling

Sistla, Seeta A., Asao, Shinichi, Schimel, Joshua P.
Soil biology & biochemistry 2012 v.55 pp. 78-84
biogeochemical cycles, biomass production, climate models, enzyme activity, global warming, growing season, latitude, microbial biomass, microbial growth, nutrients, organic soils, prediction, soil microorganisms, soil organic carbon, summer, temperature, tundra, tundra soils, Arctic region
More than a third of the global soil organic carbon (SOC) pool is estimated to be stored in northern latitudes. While the primary regulators of microbially-mediated decomposition in physically unprotected organic soils are typically attributed to abiotic factors ( e.g. temperature and moisture), in extremely nutrient-poor environments such as the Alaskan Arctic tussock tundra, evidence from field studies suggests that low N-availability may also strongly limit microbial growth, and thus the rate of SOC decomposition. However, there have been few direct tests of microbial nutrient-limitation, particularly in Arctic systems. We predicted that during the Arctic summer growing season, when both plants and microbes are competing for mineralized nutrients, N-availability in tussock tundra soil is so low that it will limit microbial biomass production, and thus decomposition potential. We tested this prediction by adding N and C to tussock tundra organic soil and tracking microbial responses to these additions. We used a combination of approaches to identify microbial N-limitation, including changes in microbial biomass, C-mineralization, substrate use efficiency, and extracellular enzyme activity. The Arctic soil's microbial community demonstrated strong signals of N-limitation, with N-addition increasing all aspects of decomposition tested, including extracellular enzyme activity, the rate-limiting step in decomposition. The corresponding C-addition experiment did not similarly influence the microbial activity of the tundra soil. These results suggest that tundra SOC decomposition is at least seasonally constrained by N-availability through microbial N-limitation. Therefore, explicitly including N as a regulator of microbial growth in this N-poor system is critical to accurately modeling the effects of climatic warming on Arctic SOC decomposition rates.