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Keywords:

  • ecosystem response;
  • food webs;
  • global change;
  • soil carbon;
  • stable isotopes

Abstract

Understanding ecosystem carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) cycling under global change requires experiments maintaining natural interactions among soil structure, soil communities, nutrient availability, and plant growth. In model Douglas-fir ecosystems maintained for five growing seasons, elevated temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) increased photosynthesis and increased C storage belowground but not aboveground. We hypothesized that interactions between N cycling and C fluxes through two main groups of microbes, mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic with plants) and saprotrophic fungi (free-living), mediated ecosystem C storage. To quantify proportions of mycorrhizal and saprotrophic fungi, we measured stable isotopes in fungivorous microarthropods that efficiently censused the fungal community. Fungivorous microarthropods consumed on average 35% mycorrhizal fungi and 65% saprotrophic fungi. Elevated temperature decreased C flux through mycorrhizal fungi by 7%, whereas elevated CO2 increased it by 4%. The dietary proportion of mycorrhizal fungi correlated across treatments with total plant biomass (n= 4, r2= 0.96, P= 0.021), but not with root biomass. This suggests that belowground allocation increased with increasing plant biomass, but that mycorrhizal fungi were stronger sinks for recent photosynthate than roots. Low N content of needles (0.8–1.1%) and A horizon soil (0.11%) coupled with high C : N ratios of A horizon soil (25–26) and litter (36–48) indicated severe N limitation. Elevated temperature treatments increased the saprotrophic decomposition of litter and lowered litter C : N ratios. Because of low N availability of this litter, its decomposition presumably increased N immobilization belowground, thereby restricting soil N availability for both mycorrhizal fungi and plant growth. Although increased photosynthesis with elevated CO2 increased allocation of C to ectomycorrhizal fungi, it did not benefit plant N status. Most N for plants and soil storage was derived from litter decomposition. N sequestration by mycorrhizal fungi and limited N release during litter decomposition by saprotrophic fungi restricted N supply to plants, thereby constraining plant growth response to the different treatments.