Stoichiometric controls of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling in decomposing beech leaf litter


  • Corresponding Editor: S. D. Frey.


Resource stoichiometry (C:N:P) is an important determinant of litter decomposition. However, the effect of elemental stoichiometry on the gross rates of microbial N and P cycling processes during litter decomposition is unknown. In a mesocosm experiment, beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) litter with natural differences in elemental stoichiometry (C:N:P) was incubated under constant environmental conditions. After three and six months, we measured various aspects of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling. We found that gross protein depolymerization, N mineralization (ammonification), and nitrification rates were negatively related to litter C:N. Rates of P mineralization were negatively correlated with litter C:P. The negative correlations with litter C:N were stronger for inorganic N cycling processes than for gross protein depolymerization, indicating that the effect of resource stoichiometry on intracellular processes was stronger than on processes catalyzed by extracellular enzymes. Consistent with this, extracellular protein depolymerization was mainly limited by substrate availability and less so by the amount of protease. Strong positive correlations between the interconnected N and P pools and the respective production and consumption processes pointed to feed-forward control of microbial litter N and P cycling. A negative relationship between litter C:N and phosphatase activity (and between litter C:P and protease activity) demonstrated that microbes tended to allocate carbon and nutrients in ample supply into the production of extracellular enzymes to mine for the nutrient that is more limiting. Overall, the study demonstrated a strong effect of litter stoichiometry (C:N:P) on gross processes of microbial N and P cycling in decomposing litter; mineralization of N and P were tightly coupled to assist in maintaining cellular homeostasis of litter microbial communities.