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Four Swedish long-term field experiments with sewage sludge reveal a limited effect on soil microbes and on metal uptake by crops

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This study aims to study the effect of sewage sludge amendment on crop yield and on microbial biomass and community structure in Swedish agricultural soils.

Materials and methods

Topsoil samples (0–0.20 m depth) from four sites where sewage sludge had been repeatedly applied during 14–53 years were analysed for total C, total N, pH and phospholipid fatty acids (PLFAs). Heavy metals were analysed in both soil and plant samples, and crop yields were recorded.

Results and discussion

At all four sites, sewage sludge application increased crop yield and soil organic carbon. Sludge addition also resulted in elevated concentrations of some heavy metals (mainly Cu and Zn) in soils, but high concentrations of metals (Ni and Zn) in plant materials were almost exclusively found in the oldest experiment, started in 1956. PLFA analysis showed that the microbial community structure was strongly affected by changes in soil pH. At those sites where sewage sludge had caused low pH, Gram-positive bacteria were more abundant. However, differences in community structure were larger between sites than between the treatments.


At all four sites, long-term sewage sludge application increased the soil organic carbon and nitrogen content, microbial biomass and crop yield. Long-term sewage sludge application led to a decrease in soil pH. Concentrations of some metals had increased significantly with sewage sludge application at all sites, but the amounts of metals added to soil with sewage sludge were found not to be toxic for microbes at any site.

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We are grateful to Per-Göran Andersson at the Swedish Rural Economy and Agricultural Society Malmöhus for access to the sites and data on metal analyses and yields at Petersborg and Igelösa. Lena Ek and Inger Juremalm carried out metal analyses at the Department of Soil and Environment and Elisabet Börjesson, Department of Microbiology, SLU, assisted with GC analysis of PLFAs. The work was conducted with support from SLF (The Swedish Farmers’ Foundation for Agricultural Research) under contract H1033139, and from the “Agricultural landscape” section within the program for Environmental Monitoring and Assessment at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

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Correspondence to Gunnar Börjesson.

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Responsible editor: Jizheng He

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Börjesson, G., Kirchmann, H. & Kätterer, T. Four Swedish long-term field experiments with sewage sludge reveal a limited effect on soil microbes and on metal uptake by crops. J Soils Sediments 14, 164–177 (2014).

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