Atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition has frequently been observed to increase soil carbon (C) storage in forests, but the underlying mechanisms still remain unclear. Changes in microbial community composition and substrate use are hypothesized to be one of the key mechanisms affected by N inputs. Here, we investigated the effects of N deposition on amino sugars, which are used as biomarkers for fungal- and bacterial-derived microbial residues in soil. We made use of a 4-year combined CO2 enrichment and N deposition experiment in model forest ecosystems, providing a distinct 13C signal for ‘new’ and ‘old’ C in soil organic matter and microbial residues measured in density and particle-size fractions of soils. Our hypothesis was that N deposition decreases the amount of fungal residues in soils, with the new microbial residues being more strongly affected than old residues. The soil fractionation showed that organic matter and microbial residues are mainly stabilized by association with soil minerals in the heavy and fine fractions. Moreover, the bacterial residues are relatively enriched at mineral surfaces compared to fungal residues. The 13C tracing indicated a greater formation of fungal residues compared to bacterial residues after 4 years of experiment. In contradiction to our hypotheses, N deposition significantly increased the amount of new fungal residues in bulk soil and decreased the decomposition of old microbial residues associated with soil minerals. The preservation of old microbial residues could be due to decreased N limitation of microorganisms and therefore a reduced dependence on organic N sources. This mechanism might be especially important in fine heavy fractions with low C/N ratios, where microbial residues are effectively protected from decomposition by association with soil minerals.
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