, Volume 185, Issue 3, pp 513–524 | Cite as

Nutrient limitation of soil microbial activity during the earliest stages of ecosystem development

  • Sarah C. Castle
  • Benjamin W. Sullivan
  • Joseph Knelman
  • Eran Hood
  • Diana R. Nemergut
  • Steven K. Schmidt
  • Cory C. Cleveland
Ecosystem ecology – original research


A dominant paradigm in ecology is that plants are limited by nitrogen (N) during primary succession. Whether generalizable patterns of nutrient limitation are also applicable to metabolically and phylogenetically diverse soil microbial communities, however, is not well understood. We investigated if measures of N and phosphorus (P) pools inform our understanding of the nutrient(s) most limiting to soil microbial community activities during primary succession. We evaluated soil biogeochemical properties and microbial processes using two complementary methodological approaches—a nutrient addition microcosm experiment and extracellular enzyme assays—to assess microbial nutrient limitation across three actively retreating glacial chronosequences. Microbial respiratory responses in the microcosm experiment provided evidence for N, P and N/P co-limitation at Easton Glacier, Washington, USA, Puca Glacier, Peru, and Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, USA, respectively, and patterns of nutrient limitation generally reflected site-level differences in soil nutrient availability. The activities of three key extracellular enzymes known to vary with soil N and P availability developed in broadly similar ways among sites, increasing with succession and consistently correlating with changes in soil total N pools. Together, our findings demonstrate that during the earliest stages of soil development, microbial nutrient limitation and activity generally reflect soil nutrient supply, a result that is broadly consistent with biogeochemical theory.


Extracellular enzymes Nutrient fertilization Primary succession Soil respiration 



We would like to thank R. Callaway, S. Dobrowski, A. Larson, Y. Lekberg, A. Marklein, M. Nasto, and three anonymous reviewers for comments on early drafts of this manuscript. Authors declare no conflict of interest. This work was supported by a National Science Foundation Grant (NSF DEB-0922306) made to CC, EH, DN, and SS.

Author contribution statement

SCC and CCC conceived and designed the experiments. SCC performed the experiments and analyzed the data. SCC, BWS, JK, and CCC wrote the manuscript; other authors provided editorial advice and all authors approved of the final version of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

442_2017_3965_MOESM1_ESM.docx (320 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 319 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sarah C. Castle
    • 1
    • 7
  • Benjamin W. Sullivan
    • 2
  • Joseph Knelman
    • 3
  • Eran Hood
    • 4
  • Diana R. Nemergut
    • 5
  • Steven K. Schmidt
    • 6
  • Cory C. Cleveland
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Ecosystem and Conservation SciencesUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Natural Resources and Environmental ScienceUniversity of NevadaRenoUSA
  3. 3.Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  4. 4.Environmental Science ProgramUniversity of Alaska SoutheastJuneauUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyDuke UniversityDurhamUSA
  6. 6.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyUniversity of ColoradoBoulderUSA
  7. 7.Department of Plant PathologyUniversity of MinnesotaSaint PaulUSA

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