The importance of amino sugar turnover to C and N cycling in organic horizons of old-growth Douglas-fir forest soils colonized by ectomycorrhizal mats
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Amino sugar dynamics represent an important but under-investigated component of the carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycles in old-growth Douglas-fir forest soils. Because fungal biomass is high in these soils, particularly in areas colonized by rhizomorphic ectomycorrhizal fungal mats, organic matter derived from chitinous cell wall material (or the monomeric building block of chitin, N-acetylglucosamine (NAG)) could be a significant source of C or N to the soil microbiota, and thus an important driver of microbial C and N processing. This paper reports the results of incubation experiments initiated to measure chitin degradation, NAG utilization, and the contribution of these substrates to soil respiration and N mineralization rates in mat-colonized and non-mat soil organic horizons. Amendments of chitin and NAG stimulated respiration, N mineralization, and biomass accumulation in mat and non-mat soils, and responses to NAG amendment were stronger than to chitin amendment. NAG-induced respiration was consistently two-fold higher in mat soils than non-mat soils, but induced N mineralization was similar between the two soil patch types. Assimilation of both C and N into microbial biomass was apparent, biomass C:N ratio decreased in all treatments, and microbial N use efficiency (treatment means 0.25 ± 0.06–0.50 ± 0.05) was greater than C use efficiency (treatment means 0.12 ± 0.04–0.32 ± 0.02). NAGase enzyme response was non-linear and showed the same pattern in chitin and NAG amendments. Responses to NAG and chitin amendment differed between mat and non-mat soils, indicating different mechanisms driving NAG and chitin utilization or differences in saprotrophic community composition between the two soil patch types. Net chitin and NAG processing rates were 0.08–3.4 times the basal respiration rates and 0.07–14 times the ambient net N mineralization rates, high enough for the turnover of total soil amino sugars to potentially occur in days to weeks. The results support the hypotheses that amino sugars are important microbial C and N sources and drivers of C and N cycling in these soils.