Mycorrhizas are ubiquitous plant–fungus mutualists in terrestrial ecosystems and play important roles in plant resource capture and nutrient cycling. Sporadic evidence suggests that anthropogenic nitrogen (N) input may impact the development and the functioning of arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, potentially altering host plant growth and soil carbon (C) dynamics. In this study, we examined how mineral N inputs affected mycorrhizal mediation of plant N acquisition and residue decomposition in a microcosm system. Each microcosm unit was separated into HOST and TEST compartments by a replaceable mesh screen that either prevented or allowed AM fungal hyphae but not plant roots to grow into the TEST compartments. Wild oat (Avena fatua L.) was planted in the HOST compartments that had been inoculated with either a single species of AM fungus, Glomus etunicatum, or a mixture of AM fungi including G. etunicatum. Mycorrhizal contributions to plant N acquisition and residue decomposition were directly assessed by introducing a mineral 15N tracer and 13C-rich residues of a C4 plant to the TEST compartments. Results from 15N tracer measurements showed that AM fungal hyphae directly transported N from the TEST soil to the host plant. Compared with the control with no penetration of AM fungal hyphae, AM hyphal penetration led to a 125% increase in biomass 15N of host plants and a 20% reduction in extractable inorganic N in the TEST soil. Mineral N inputs to the HOST compartments (equivalent to 5.0 g N m−2 yr−1) increased oat biomass and total root length colonized by mycorrhizal fungi by 189% and 285%, respectively, as compared with the no-N control. Mineral N inputs to the HOST plants also reduced extractable inorganic N and particulate residue C proportion by 58% and 12%, respectively, in the corresponding TEST soils as compared to the no-N control, by stimulating AM fungal growth and activities. The species mixture of mycorrhizal fungi was more effective in facilitating N transport and residue decomposition than the single AM species. These findings indicate that low-level mineral N inputs may significantly enhance nutrient cycling and plant resource capture in terrestrial ecosystems via stimulation of root growth, mycorrhizal functioning, and residue decomposition. The long-term effects of these observed alterations on soil C dynamics remain to be investigated.
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