, Volume 142, Issue 2, pp 299–313 | Cite as

Long-term nitrogen addition suppresses microbial degradation, enhances soil carbon storage, and alters the molecular composition of soil organic matter

  • Jun-Jian Wang
  • Richard D. Bowden
  • Kate Lajtha
  • Susan E. Washko
  • Sarah J. Wurzbacher
  • Myrna J. SimpsonEmail author


Forest soil organic carbon (SOC) is one of the largest reservoirs of terrestrial carbon (C) and is a major component of the global C cycle. Yet there is still uncertainty regarding how ecosystems, and the SOC they store, will respond to changes due to anthropogenic processes. Current and future reactive nitrogen (N) deposition to forest soils may alter biogeochemical processes and shift both the quantity and quality of stored SOC. We studied SOC storage and molecular-level composition after 22 years of N additions (100 kg N ha−1 y−1) in a temperate deciduous forest. SOC storage in surface soils increased by 0.93 kg m−2 due to a decline in microbial biomass (phospholipid fatty acids) and litter decomposition. N additions resulted in the selective preservation of a range of plant-derived compounds including steroids, lignin-derived, cutin-derived, and suberin-derived compounds that have anti-microbial properties or are non-preferred microbial substrates. This overall shift in SOC composition suggests limited sustainability and a decline in soil health. The reduction in microbial biomass and increase in specific SOC components demonstrate that long-term N fertilization negatively alters fundamental C cycling in forest soils. This study also demonstrates unequivocally that anthropogenic impacts on C and N cycling in forests at the molecular-level must be considered more holistically.


Forest soil Carbon storage Carbon biogeochemistry Phospholipid fatty acids Organic matter biomarkers Lignin Cutin Suberin Forest soils 



This research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada via a Discovery Grant (#2015-05760) and a Discovery Accelerator Supplement (#478038-15) to M.J.S. We sincerely thank Lori vandenEnden, Zhangliu Du, Sam Reese, Ivy Ryan, and Allegheny College for field, laboratory, and financial assistance.

Supplementary material

10533_2018_535_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (636 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 635 kb)


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental NMR Centre and Department of Physical and Environmental SciencesUniversity of Toronto ScarboroughTorontoCanada
  2. 2.Department of Environmental ScienceAllegheny CollegeMeadvilleUSA
  3. 3.College of Crop and Soil ScienceOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA
  4. 4.School of Environmental Science and Engineering, Guangdong Provincial Key Laboratory of Soil and Groundwater Pollution ControlSouthern University of Science and TechnologyShenzhenChina
  5. 5.School of Natural Resources and the EnvironmentUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  6. 6.Penn State ExtensionThe Pennsylvania State UniversityUniversity ParkUSA

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