Ecology Letters (2011) 14: 933–938
Evolutionary trade-offs among ecological traits are one mechanism that could determine the responses of functional groups of decomposers to global changes such as nitrogen (N) enrichment. We hypothesised that bacteria targeting recalcitrant carbon compounds require relatively high levels of N availability to support the construction costs of requisite extracellular and transport enzymes. Indeed, we found that taxa that used more recalcitrant (i.e. larger and cyclic) carbon compounds were more prevalent in ocean waters with higher nitrate concentrations. Compared to recalcitrant carbon users, labile carbon users targeted more organic N compounds, were found in relatively nitrate-poor waters, and were more common in higher latitude soils, which is consistent with the paradigm that N-limitation is stronger at higher latitudes. Altogether, evolutionary trade-offs may limit recalcitrant carbon users to habitats with higher N availability.