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Research article2015Peer reviewedOpen access

Shifts in soil microbial community structure, nitrogen cycling and the concomitant declining N availability in ageing primary boreal forest ecosystems

Blasko, Robert; Holm Bach, Lisbet; Yarwood, Stephanie A.; Trumbore, Susan E.; Högberg, Peter; N. Högberg, Mona


Plant growth in boreal forests is commonly limited by a low supply of nitrogen, a condition that may be aggravated by high tree below-ground allocation of carbon to ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungi and associated microorganisms. These in turn immobilise N and reduce its availability to plants as boreal ecosystems develop. Here, we studied a boreal forest ecosystem chronosequence created by new land rising out of the sea due to iso-static rebound along the coast of northern Sweden. We used height over the ocean to estimate ecosystem age and examined its relationship to soil microbial community structure and the gross turnover of N. The youngest soils develop with meadows by the coast, followed by a zone of N2-fixing alder trees, and primary boreal conifer forest on ground up to 560 years old. The young soils in meadows contained little organic matter and microbial biomass per unit area. Nitrogen was turned over at low rates when expressed per area (m(-2)), but specific rates (per gram soil carbon (C)) were the highest found along the transect. In the zone with alder, the amounts of soil C and microbial biomass were much higher (bacterial biomass had doubled and fungal biomass quadrupled). Rates of gross N mineralisation (expressed on an area basis) were highest, but the retention of added labelled NH4+ was lowest in this soil as compared to other ages. The alder zone also had the largest extractable pools of inorganic N in soil and highest N % in plant foliage. In the older conifer forest ecosystems the amounts of soil C and N, as well as biomass of both bacteria and fungi increased. Data on organic matter C-14 suggested that the largest input of recently fixed plant C occurred in the younger coniferous forest ecosystems. With increasing ecosystem age, the ratio of microbial C to total soil C was constant, whereas the ratio of microbial N to total soil N increased and gross N mineralization declined. Simultaneously, plant foliar N % decreased and the natural abundance of N-15 in the soil increased. More specifically, the difference in delta N-15 between plant foliage and soil increased, which is related to relatively greater retention of N-15 relative to N-14 by ECM fungi as N is taken up from the soil and some N is transferred to the plant host. In the conifer forest, where these changes were greatest, we found increased fungal biomass in the F- and H-horizons of the mor-layer, in which ECM fungi are known to dominate (the uppermost horizon with litter and moss is dominated by saprotrophic fungi). Hence, we propose that the decreasing availability of N to the plants and the subsequent decline in plant production in ageing boreal forests is linked to high tree belowground C allocation to ECM fungi, a strong microbial sink for available soil N. (C) 2015 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd.


Fungi/Bacteria; N-15 Natural abundance; Gross N mineralisation; Lipid fatty acids; Q-PCR; Radiocarbon

Published in

Soil Biology and Biochemistry
2015, Volume: 91, pages: 200-211
Publisher: Elsevier