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Soil microbial responses to elevated phosphorus and pH in acidic temperate deciduous forests

Abstract

Although northern temperate forests are generally not considered phosphorus (P) limited, ecosystem P limitation may occur on highly weathered or strongly acidic soils where bioavailable inorganic P is low. In such environments, soil organisms may compensate by increasing the utilization of organic P via the production of extracellular enzymes to prevent limitation. In this study, we experimentally increased available P and/or pH in several acidic eastern deciduous forests underlain by glaciated and unglaciated soils in eastern Ohio, USA. We hypothesized that where inorganic P is low; soil microbes are able to access organic P by increasing production of phosphatase enzymes, thereby overcoming biogeochemical P limitations. We measured surface soil for: available P pools, N mineralization and nitrification rates, total C and N, enzymes responsible for C, N, and P hydrolysis, and microbial community composition (PLFA). Increasing surface soil pH a whole unit had little effect on microbial community composition, but increased N cycling rates in unglaciated soils. Phosphorus additions suppressed phosphatase activities over 60% in the unglaciated soils but were unchanged in the glaciated soils. All treatments had minimal influence on microbial biomass, but available pools of P strongly correlated with microbial composition. Microbes may be dependent on sources of organic P in some forest ecosystems and from a microbial perspective soil pH might be less important overall than P availability. Although our sampling was conducted less than 1 year after treatment initiation, microbial community composition was strongly influenced by available P pools and these effects may be greater than short-term increases in soil pH.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DEB 0918681 and DEB 0918167). We thank Charlotte Hewins, our undergraduate research assistants Alanna Shaw and Natalie Romito, and our high school intern, Adealiah Bennett, for help with field sampling and/or laboratory analysis. We also thank Charlotte Hewins, Gary Tobaj, Matthew Lurch, Keith Gilland, Lindsay Scott, Ryan Homsher, Clinton Calhoun, and Scott Fisher for help with establishing our treatments. Special thanks to Maria Farinacci for spreading nearly seven tons of lime herself. We thank Douglas Sturtz of USDA-ARS (University of Toledo) for running samples on the ICP-MS.

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Correspondence to Jared L. DeForest.

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DeForest, J.L., Smemo, K.A., Burke, D.J. et al. Soil microbial responses to elevated phosphorus and pH in acidic temperate deciduous forests. Biogeochemistry 109, 189–202 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-011-9619-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-011-9619-6

Keywords

  • Enzyme activity
  • Lime fertilization
  • Phosphorus fertilization
  • PLFA
  • Temperate forests