Plant and microbial N acquisition under elevated atmospheric CO2 in two mesocosm experiments with annual grasses


Shuijin Hu, fax +919 513 1279, e-mail:


The impact of elevated CO2 on terrestrial ecosystem C balance, both in sign or magnitude, is not clear because the resulting alterations in C input, plant nutrient demand and water use efficiency often have contrasting impacts on microbial decomposition processes. One major source of uncertainty stems from the impact of elevated CO2 on N availability to plants and microbes. We examined the effects of atmospheric CO2 enrichment (ambient+370 μmol mol−1) on plant and microbial N acquisition in two different mesocosm experiments, using model plant species of annual grasses of Avena barbata and A. fatua, respectively. The A. barbata experiment was conducted in a N-poor sandy loam and the A. fatua experiment was on a N-rich clayey loam. Plant–microbial N partitioning was examined through determining the distribution of a 15N tracer. In the A. barbata experiment, 15N tracer was introduced to a field labeling experiment in the previous year so that 15N predominantly existed in nonextractable soil pools. In the A. fatua experiment, 15N was introduced in a mineral solution [(15NH4)2SO4 solution] during the growing season of A. fatua. Results of both N budget and 15N tracer analyses indicated that elevated CO2 increased plant N acquisition from the soil. In the A. barbata experiment, elevated CO2 increased plant biomass N by ca. 10% but there was no corresponding decrease in soil extractable N, suggesting that plants might have obtained N from the nonextractable organic N pool because of enhanced microbial activity. In the A. fatua experiment, however, the CO2-led increase in plant biomass N was statistically equal to the reduction in soil extractable N. Although atmospheric CO2 enrichment enhanced microbial biomass C under A. barbata or microbial activity (respiration) under A. fatua, it had no significant effect on microbial biomass N in either experiment. Elevated CO2 increased the colonization of A. fatua roots by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which coincided with the enhancement of plant competitiveness for soluble soil N. Together, these results suggest that elevated CO2 may tighten N cycling through facilitating plant N acquisition. However, it is unknown to what degree results from these short-term microcosm experiments can be extrapolated to field conditions. Long-term studies in less-disturbed soils are needed to determine whether CO2-enhancement of plant N acquisition can significantly relieve N limitation over plant growth in an elevated CO2 environment.