The high degree to which plant roots compete with soil microbes for organic forms of nitrogen (N) is becoming increasingly apparent. This has culminated in the finding that plants may consume soil microbes as a source of N, but the functional significance of this process remains unknown.
We used 15N- and 14C-labelled cultures of soil bacteria to measure rates of acquisition of microbes by sterile wheat roots and plants growing in soil. We compared these rates with acquisition of 15N delivered as nitrate, amino acid monomer (l-alanine) and short peptide (l-tetraalanine), and the rate of decomposition of [14C] microbes by indigenous soil microbiota.
Acquisition of microbe 15N by both sterile roots and roots growing in soil was one to two orders of magnitude slower than acquisition of all other forms of 15N. Decomposition of microbes was fast enough to account for all 15N recovered, but approximately equal recovery of microbe 14C suggests that microbes entered roots intact.
Uptake of soil microbes by wheat (Triticum aestivum) roots appears to take place in soil. If wheat is typical, the importance of this process to terrestrial N cycling is probably minor in comparison with fluxes of other forms of soil inorganic and organic N.