Effects of tree species and N additions on forest floor microbial communities and extracellular enzyme activities

Matthew P. Weand, Mary A. Arthur, Gary M. Lovett, Rebecca L. McCulley, Kathleen C. Weathers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

172 Scopus citations


Forest nitrogen (N) retention and soil carbon (C) storage are influenced by tree species and their associated soil microbial communities. As global change factors alter forest composition, predicting long-term C and N dynamics will require understanding microbial community structure and function at the tree species level. Because atmospheric N deposition is increasing N inputs to forested ecosystems across the globe, including the northeastern US, it is also important to understand how microbial communities respond to added N. While prior studies have examined these topics in mixed-species stands, we focused on the responses of different tree species and their associated microbial communities within a single forest type - a northern hardwood forest in the Catskills Mountains, NY. Based on prior studies, we hypothesized that N additions would stimulate extracellular enzyme activities in relatively labile litters, but suppress oxidative enzyme activities in recalcitrant litters, and tested for independent tree species effects within this context. During the 2007 growing season (May-June), we measured enzyme activities and microbial community composition (using phospholipid fatty acid analysis - PLFA) of the forest floor in single-species plots dominated by sugar maple (Acer saccharum), yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), red oak (Quercus rubra), American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), species whose litters range from relatively labile to recalcitrant. Half the plots were fertilized with N by adding NH4NO3 (50kgha-1y-1) from 1997 to 2009. Non-metric multidimensional scaling (NMS) and multi-response permutation procedures (MRPP) were used to examine microbial community structure and relationship to enzyme activities.We found that in response to N additions, both microbial community composition and enzyme activities changed; however the strength of the changes were tree species-specific and the direction of these changes was and not readily predictable from prior studies conducted in mixed-species stands. For example, in contrast to other studies, we found that N additions caused a significant overall increase in fungal biomass that was strongest for yellow birch (24% increase) and weakest for sugar maple (1% increase). Contrary to our initial hypotheses and current conceptual models, N additions reduced hydrolytic enzyme activities in hemlock plots and reduced oxidative enzyme activity in birch plots, a species with relatively labile litter. These responses suggest that our understanding of the interactions between microbial community composition, enzyme activity, substrate chemistry, and nutrient availability as influenced by tree species composition is incomplete. NMS ordination showed that patterns in microbial community structure (PLFA) and function (enzyme activity) were more strongly influenced by tree species than by fertilization, and only partially agreed with the structure-function relationships found in other studies. This finding suggests that tree species-specific responses are likely to be important in determining the structure and function of northeastern hardwood forests in the future. Enhanced understanding of microbial responses to added N in single and mixed-species substrates with varying amounts of lignin and phenols may be needed for accurate predictions of future soil C and N dynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2161-2173
Number of pages13
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the National Science Foundation (grants DEB 9981503 and DEB 0444895 ) for financial support for this work. We are grateful to Jim Nelson, Maria Almagro-Bonmati, David Fischer, Stuart Findlay, Rob Keefe, Maggie Ward, Margaret Carreiro, Noah Beck, Jen Peters, Rachel Ruppel, and other employees and students at the Cary Institute and the University of Kentucky who helped with the sample collection and analysis. This is a publication of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station (10-09-073) and a contribution to the program of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.


  • Catskill Mountains
  • Nitrogen deposition
  • Northern hardwood forest
  • Phospholipid fatty acid

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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