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Fine root dynamics responses to nitrogen addition depend on root order, soil layer, and experimental duration in a subtropical forest

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Elevated atmospheric N deposition has been well documented to enhance fine root production in N-limited temperate forests, but how fine roots respond to N deposition in N-rich tropical and subtropical forests remains poorly understood. The sequential coring and minirhizotron methods were applied to quantify fine root biomass, production, and turnover of a N-rich but P-limited subtropical forest in southern China and to assess the responses of these root variables to a gradient of N additions (control (0), low-N (35), medium-N (70), and high-N (105 kg N ha−1 year−1)) during the first 3 years of experimentation. The high- and medium-N additions significantly reduced fine root diameter by about 30% but increased the specific root length by 20–105%, i.e., fine roots became thinner and longer under the experimental N addition. Both low- and medium-N additions generally stimulated fine root production (10–88%) and turnover (3–40%), whereas high-N suppressed them by 32–70% and 8–54%, respectively, varying with sampling season and estimation method. The stimulatory effects were presumably ascribed to the increased fine root growth for P acquisition, the suppressive effect, to the deleterious damage to the root health and micronutrient availability. Overall, the N effects were more pronounced in the surface (0–10 cm) than in the deeper (10–40 cm) soil layers and for the first-order than the higher-order fine roots. Our results indicate that lower-order absorptive fine roots are responsive to elevated N deposition, and complex responses could emerge due to the interactive influences of the N deposition rate, seasonality, and soil depth.

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We thank the Dinghushan forest ecosystem research station, CAS, for platform support, and we thank Yanxia Nie, Shengnan Ouyang and Weiren Wang for their helps with the field sampling. Three anonymous reviewers provided constructive comments that helped the revision of the manuscript.


This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31425005, 31290222), and the National Ten Thousand Talents Program.

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WS and WW conceived the ideas and designed the study; WW, QM, and XH collected the samples and analyzed the data; DH took part in writing and data analysis; all authors contributed to the writing and revision of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Weijun Shen.

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Wang, W., Mo, Q., Han, X. et al. Fine root dynamics responses to nitrogen addition depend on root order, soil layer, and experimental duration in a subtropical forest. Biol Fertil Soils 55, 723–736 (2019).

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