Indirect Effects of Nitrogen Amendments on Organic Substrate Quality Increase Enzymatic Activity Driving Decomposition in a Mesic Grassland
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The fate of soil organic carbon (SOC) is determined, in part, by complex interactions between the quality of plant litter inputs, nutrient availability, and the microbial communities that control decomposition rates. This study explores these interactions in a mesic grassland where C and nitrogen (N) availability and plant litter quality have been manipulated using both fertilization and haying for 7 years. We measured a suite of soil parameters including inorganic N, extractable organic C and N (EOC and EON), soil moisture, extracellular enzyme activity (EEA), and the isotopic composition of C and N in the microbial biomass and substrate sources. We use these data to determine how the activity of microbial decomposers was influenced by varying levels of substrate C and N quality and quantity and to explore potential mechanisms explaining the fate of enhanced plant biomass inputs with fertilization. Oxidative EEA targeting relatively recalcitrant C pools was not affected by fertilization. EEA linked to the breakdown of relatively labile C rich substrates exhibited no relationship with inorganic N availability but was significantly greater with fertilization and associated increases in substrate quality. These increases in EEA were not related to an increase in microbial biomass C. The ratio of hydrolytic C:N acquisition enzymes and δ13C and δ15N values of microbial biomass relative to bulk soil C and N, or EOC and EON suggest that microbial communities in fertilized plots were relatively C limited, a feature likely driving enhanced microbial efforts to acquire C from labile sources. These data suggest that in mesic grasslands, enhancements in biomass inputs and quality with fertilization can prompt an increase in EEA within the mineral soil profile with no significant increases in microbial biomass. Our work helps elucidate the microbially mediated fate of enhanced biomass inputs that are greater in magnitude than the associated increases in mineral soil organic matter.