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Plant invasion alters nitrogen cycling by modifying the soil nitrifying community


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Plant invasions have dramatic aboveground effects on plant community composition, but their belowground effects remain largely uncharacterized. Soil microorganisms directly interact with plants and mediate many nutrient transformations in soil. We hypothesized that belowground changes to the soil microbial community provide a mechanistic link between exotic plant invasion and changes to ecosystem nutrient cycling. To examine this possible link, monocultures and mixtures of exotic and native species were maintained for 4 years in a California grassland. Gross rates of nitrogen (N) mineralization and nitrification were quantified with 15N pool dilution and soil microbial communities were characterized with DNA-based methods. Exotic grasses doubled gross nitrification rates, in part by increasing the abundance and changing the composition of ammonia-oxidizing bacteria in soil. These changes may translate into altered ecosystem N budgets after invasion. Altered soil microbial communities and their resulting effects on ecosystem processes may be an invisible legacy of exotic plant invasions.