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Nitrogen cycling in desert biological soil crusts across biogeographic regions in the Southwestern United States

Abstract

Biological soil crusts (BSCs) are thought to be important in the fertility of arid lands as gateways for carbon (C) and nitrogen (N). Studies on the Colorado Plateau have shown that an incomplete internal N cycle operates in BSCs that results in significant exports of dissolved organic N, ammonia and nitrate into the bulk soil through percolating water, thus mechanistically explaining their role as a N gateway. It is not known if this pattern is found in other arid regions. To examine this, we measured rates of major biogeochemical N-transformations in a variety of BSCs collected from the Colorado Plateau and the Mojave, Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. Dinitrogen fixation and aerobic ammonia oxidation were prominent transformations at all sites. We found anaerobic ammonia oxidation (anammox) rates to be below the detection limit in all cases, and at least 50-fold smaller than rates of N2-fixation, making it an irrelevant process for these BSCs. Heterotrophic denitrification was also of little consequence for the flow of N, with rates at least an order of magnitude smaller than those of N2-fixation. Thus we could confirm that despite the demonstrable differences in microbial community composition and soil material, BSCs from major biogeographic regions in arid North America displayed a remarkably consistent pattern of internal N cycling. The implications for arid land fertility drawn from previous studies in the Colorado Plateau appear applicable to BSCs across other arid regions of the Southwestern United States.

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Acknowledgments

We thank personnel at Jornada LTER for allowing sample collection. The Jornada Experimental Range is administered by the USDA-ARS and is a Long Term Ecological Research site funded by the National Science Foundation. We also thank Scott Bates and Hugo Beraldi for their assistance in sample collection and Ruth Potrafka for her assistance in the laboratory. This work was supported by USDA-NRI grant 2007-35107-18299 and NSF grant 020671 to Ferran Garcia-Pichel.

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Correspondence to Sarah L. Strauss.

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Strauss, S.L., Day, T.A. & Garcia-Pichel, F. Nitrogen cycling in desert biological soil crusts across biogeographic regions in the Southwestern United States. Biogeochemistry 108, 171–182 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-011-9587-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-011-9587-x

Keywords

  • Biological soil crust
  • Desert
  • Nitrogen
  • Bacteria
  • Denitrification
  • Ammonia-oxidation
  • Dinitrogen-fixation