Is microbial community composition in boreal forest soils determined by pH, C-to-N ratio, the trees, or all three?
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In Fennoscandian boreal forests, soil pH and N supply generally increase downhill as a result of water transport of base cations and N, respectively. Simultaneously, forest productivity increases, the understory changes from ericaceous dwarf shrubs to tall herbs; in the soil, fungi decrease whereas bacteria increase. The composition of the soil microbial community is mainly thought to be controlled by the pH and C-to-N ratio of the substrate. However, the latter also determines the N supply to plants, the plant community composition, and should also affect plant allocation of C below ground to roots and a major functional group of microbes, mycorrhizal fungi. We used phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs) to analyze the potential importance of mycorrhizal fungi by comparing the microbial community composition in a tree-girdling experiment, where tree belowground C allocation was terminated, and in a long-term (34 years) N loading experiment, with the shifts across a natural pH and N supply gradient. Both tree girdling and N loading caused a decline of ca. 45% of the fungal biomarker PLFA 18:2ω6,9, suggesting a common mechanism, i.e., that N loading caused a decrease in the C supply to ectomycorrhizal fungi just as tree girdling did. The total abundance of bacterial PLFAs did not respond to tree girdling or to N loading, in which cases the pH (of the mor layer) did not change appreciably, but bacterial PLFAs increased considerably when pH increased across the natural gradient. Fungal biomass was high only in acid soil (pH < 4.1) with a high C-to-N ratio (>38). According to a principal component analysis, the soil C-to-N ratio was as good as predictor of microbial community structure as pH. Our study thus indicated the soil C-to-N ratio, and the response of trees to this ratio, as important factors that together with soil pH influence soil microbial community composition.
KeywordsFungi-to-bacteria ratio Mycorrhizal fungi Nitrogen fertilization Tree belowground carbon allocation Tree girdling
We thank Professor Åsa Frostegård and Dr Rockie Yarwood for valuable advice. Funding was provided by Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences, and Spatial Planning (FORMAS), and Swedish Science Council (VR).
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