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Isotopic constraints on plant nitrogen acquisition strategies during ecosystem retrogression


Plant root associations with microbes such as mycorrhizal fungi or N-fixing bacteria enable ecosystems to tap pools of nitrogen (N) that might otherwise be inaccessible, including atmospheric N or N in large soil organic molecules. Such microbially assisted N-foraging strategies may be particularly important in late-successional retrogressive ecosystems where productivity is low and soil nutrients are scarce. Here, we use natural N-stable isotopic composition to constrain pathways of N supplies to different plant functional groups across a well-studied natural soil fertility gradient that includes a highly retrogressive stage. We demonstrate that ectomycorrhizal fungi, ericoid mycorrhizal fungi, and N-fixing bacteria support forest N supplies at all stages of ecosystem succession, from relatively young, N-rich/phosphorus (P)-rich sites, to ancient sites (ca. 500 ky) where both N supplies and P supplies are exceedingly low. Microbially mediated N sources are most important in older ecosystems with very low soil nutrient availability, accounting for 75–96% of foliar N at the oldest, least fertile sites. These isotopically ground findings point to the key role of plant–microbe associations in shaping ecosystem processes and functioning, particularly in retrogressive-phase forest ecosystems.

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We thank Joyce Wong, Laura Losmozos, Christina Day, Andy Parks, Elisa Fernandes-McDade, Emma Hansen-Smith, Sara Hutton, Avery Kruger, and Kelly Norris for their assistance in sample collection. This study was funded by National Science Foundation Grant DGE-1148897 awarded to KAD and DEB-1150246 awarded to BZH.

Author information

KAD and BZH designed the research and the methodology. KAD conducted the fieldwork and laboratory work, analyzed the data, and wrote the original manuscript draft. KAD and BZH revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to Katherine A. Dynarski.

Additional information

Here, we use stable N isotopes to quantify the contribution of plant-microbe partnerships to forest N supplies throughout succession. We demonstrate that symbioses are critical to plant nutrition in the retrogressive ecosystems of late-stage succession, where soil nutrient availability is especially low.

Communicated by Hakan Wallander.

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Dynarski, K.A., Houlton, B.Z. Isotopic constraints on plant nitrogen acquisition strategies during ecosystem retrogression. Oecologia (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-020-04606-y

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  • Stable isotopes
  • Mycorrhizal fungi
  • N fixation
  • Nutrient limitation
  • Ecosystem retrogression