Elevated atmospheric CO2 has the potential to increase the production and alter the chemistry of organic substrates entering soil from plant production, the magnitude of which is constrained by soil-N availability. Because microbial growth in soil is limited by substrate inputs from plant production, we reasoned that changes in the amount and chemistry of these organic substrates could affect the composition of soil microbial communities and the cycling of N in soil. We studied microbial community composition and soil-N transformations beneath Populus tremuloides Michx. growing under experimental atmospheric CO2 (35.7 and 70.7 Pa) and soil-N-availability (low N = 61 ng N·g−1·d−1 and high N = 319 ng N·g−1·d−1) treatments. Atmospheric CO2 concentration was modified in large, open-top chambers, and we altered soil-N availability in open-bottom root boxes by mixing different proportions of A and C horizon material. We used phospholipid fatty-acid analysis to gain insight into microbial community composition and coupled this analysis to measurements of soil-N transformations using 15N-pool dilution techniques. The information presented here is part of an integrated experiment designed to elucidate the physiological mechanisms controlling the flow of C and N in the plant–soil system. Our objectives were (1) to determine whether changes in plant growth and tissue chemistry alter microbial community composition and soil-N cycling in response to increasing atmospheric CO2 and soil-N availability and (2) to integrate the results of our experiment into a synthesis of elevated atmospheric CO2 and the cycling of C and N in terrestrial ecosystems.
After 2.5 growing seasons, microbial biomass, gross N mineralization, microbial immobilization, and nitrification (gross and net) were equivalent at ambient and elevated CO2, suggesting that increases in fine-root production and declines in fine-root N concentration were insufficient to alter the influence of native soil organic matter on microbial physiology; this was the case in both low- and high-N soil. Similarly, elevated CO2 did not alter the proportion of bacterial, actinomycetal, or fungal phospholipid fatty acids in low-N or high-N soil, indicating that changes in substrate input from greater plant growth under elevated CO2 did not alter microbial community composition. Our results differ from a substantial number of studies reporting increases and decreases in soil-N cycling under elevated CO2. From our analysis, it appears that soil-N cycling responds to elevated atmospheric CO2 in experimental situations where plant roots have fully colonized the soil and root-associated C inputs are sufficient to modify the influence of native soil organic matter on microbial physiology. In young developing ecosystems where plant roots have not fully exploited the soil, microbial metabolism appears to be regulated by relatively large pools of soil organic matter, rather than by the additional input of organic substrates under elevated CO2.