Nutrient feedbacks to soil heterotrophic nitrogen fixation in forests

Abstract

Multiple nutrient cycles regulate biological nitrogen (N) fixation in forests, yet long-term feedbacks between N-fixation and coupled element cycles remain largely unexplored. We examined soil nutrients and heterotrophic N-fixation across a gradient of 24 temperate conifer forests shaped by legacies of symbiotic N-fixing trees. We observed positive relationships among mineral soil pools of N, carbon (C), organic molybdenum (Mo), and organic phosphorus (P) across sites, evidence that legacies of symbiotic N-fixing trees can increase the abundance of multiple elements important to heterotrophic N-fixation. Soil N accumulation lowered rates of heterotrophic N-fixation in organic horizons due to both N inhibition of nitrogenase enzymes and declines in soil organic matter quality. Experimental fertilization of organic horizon soil revealed widespread Mo limitation of heterotrophic N-fixation, especially at sites where soil Mo was scarce relative to C. Fertilization also revealed widespread absence of P limitation, consistent with high soil P:Mo ratios. Responses of heterotrophic N-fixation to added Mo (positive) and N (negative) were correlated across sites, evidence that multiple nutrient controls of heterotrophic N-fixation were more common than single-nutrient effects. We propose a conceptual model where symbiotic N-fixation promotes coupled N, C, P, and Mo accumulation in soil, leading to positive feedback that relaxes nutrient limitation of overall N-fixation, though heterotrophic N-fixation is primarily suppressed by strong negative feedback from long-term soil N accumulation.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Clarinda Wilson, Jade Marks, Justin Hynicka, April Strid, Kecia Jones, and Lauren Armony for field and laboratory assistance, SNCC cooperators for access to field sites, and Liz King, Annette Trierweiler, and two anonymous reviewers for manuscript comments. We acknowledge National Science Foundation support through grants DEB-1457650 to S. Perakis and EAR-1053470 to J. Pett-Ridge. Any use of trade names does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

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Correspondence to Steven S. Perakis.

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Perakis, S.S., Pett-Ridge, J.C. & Catricala, C.E. Nutrient feedbacks to soil heterotrophic nitrogen fixation in forests. Biogeochemistry 134, 41–55 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-017-0341-x

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Keywords

  • Nitrogen
  • Carbon
  • Phosphorus
  • Molybdenum
  • Temperate forest
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Soil organic matter
  • Feedback