Consistent effects of nitrogen amendments on soil microbial communities and processes across biomes


Correspondence: Kelly S. Ramirez, tel. + 303 492 2099, fax + 303 492 1149, e-mail:


Ecosystems worldwide are receiving increasing amounts of reactive nitrogen (N) via anthropogenic activities with the added N having potentially important impacts on microbially mediated belowground carbon dynamics. However, a comprehensive understanding of how elevated N availability affects soil microbial processes and community dynamics remains incomplete. The mechanisms responsible for the observed responses are poorly resolved and we do not know if soil microbial communities respond in a similar manner across ecosystems. We collected 28 soils from a broad range of ecosystems in North America, amended soils with inorganic N, and incubated the soils under controlled conditions for 1 year. Consistent across nearly all soils, N addition decreased microbial respiration rates, with an average decrease of 11% over the year-long incubation, and decreased microbial biomass by 35%. High-throughput pyrosequencing showed that N addition consistently altered bacterial community composition, increasing the relative abundance of Actinobacteria and Firmicutes, and decreasing the relative abundance of Acidobacteria and Verrucomicrobia. Further, N-amended soils consistently had lower activities in a broad suite of extracellular enzymes and had decreased temperature sensitivity, suggesting a shift to the preferential decomposition of more labile C pools. The observed trends held across strong gradients in climate and soil characteristics, indicating that the soil microbial responses to N addition are likely controlled by similar wide-spread mechanisms. Our results support the hypothesis that N addition depresses soil microbial activity by shifting the metabolic capabilities of soil bacterial communities, yielding communities that are less capable of decomposing more recalcitrant soil carbon pools and leading to a potential increase in soil carbon sequestration rates.