Plant and Soil

, Volume 429, Issue 1–2, pp 113–125 | Cite as

Species-specific nitrogenase activity in lichen-dominated biological soil crusts from the Colorado Plateau, USA

  • Terry J. Torres-Cruz
  • Armin J. Howell
  • Robin H. Reibold
  • Theresa A. McHugh
  • Mackenzie A. Eickhoff
  • Sasha C. ReedEmail author
Regular Article


Background and aim

Biological soil crusts (biocrusts) play numerous crucial roles in drylands, which comprise over 40% of Earth’s terrestrial surface. Among these key contributions is the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. Yet, relatively little is known about the N2 fixation capabilities of different lichen species that are found in late successional biocrust communities across drylands globally.


In order to improve our species-specific understanding of biocrust lichen N2 fixation, we collected biocrusts dominated by four common species of lichens – Collema spp., Gyalolechia desertorum, Psora decipiens, and Squamarina lentigera – that represent a range of lichen families and morphological types. Nitrogenase activity of the biocrust community dominated by these lichens was evaluated using the acetylene reduction assay. Additionally, biocrust community composition was assessed using the point-intercept method along transects at varied distances from exposed bedrock.


As expected, Collema spp.-dominated biocrusts had the highest rates of nitrogenase activity, with rates up to seven times larger than those of the other three target species. Nitrogen concentrations and carbon:nitrogen ratios of lichen tissue differed among lichen species. However, when the composite biocrust profile was assessed (i.e., biocrust tissue, microbial cells, and mineral soil to a 2 cm depth) these among-species differences in total nitrogen disappeared. Community composition changed according to distance from exposed bedrock, with a higher diversity of lichens closer to the bedrock.


Multiple drivers, including climate and land use change, affect biocrust community composition and species-specific functional information, even within a group such as late successional biocrusts, could help in forecasting the potential effects of global change on N2 fixation, and consequently, soil fertility in drylands.


Acetylene reduction assay Chlorolichens Collema sppDrylands Nitrogen fixation 



The authors thank Matthew Bowker and Anita Antoninka for their assistance with lichen identification, and Hilda Smith for help with gas chromatography. We are also grateful to Natalie Day, David Eldridge, and three anonymous reviewers, whose comments on an earlier draft significantly improved the paper. This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science Terrestrial Ecosystem Sciences Program, under Award Number DE-SC-0008168, as well as the US Geological Survey’s Ecosystems Mission Area. Any use of trade, firm, or product names is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Supplementary material

11104_2018_3580_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (429 kb)
ESM 1 (PDF 429 kb)
11104_2018_3580_MOESM2_ESM.pdf (163 kb)
ESM 2 (PDF 163 kb)
11104_2018_3580_MOESM3_ESM.pdf (67 kb)
ESM 3 (PDF 67.1 kb)


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the US; foreign copyright protection may apply 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Terry J. Torres-Cruz
    • 1
  • Armin J. Howell
    • 1
  • Robin H. Reibold
    • 1
  • Theresa A. McHugh
    • 2
  • Mackenzie A. Eickhoff
    • 2
  • Sasha C. Reed
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.US Geological SurveySouthwest Biological Science CenterMoabUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biological SciencesColorado Mesa UniversityGrand JunctionUSA

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