Low levels of nitrogen addition stimulate decomposition by boreal forest fungi

Steven D. Allison, David S. LeBauer, M. Rosario Ofrecio, Randy Reyes, Anh Minh Ta, Tri M. Tran

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Climate warming and associated increases in nutrient mineralization may increase the availability of soil nitrogen (N) in high latitude ecosystems, such as boreal forests. These changes in N availability could feed back to affect the decomposition of litter and organic matter by soil microbes. Since fungi are important decomposers in boreal forest ecosystems, we conducted a 69-day incubation study to examine N constraints on fungal decomposition of organic substrates common in boreal ecosystems, including cellulose, lignin, spruce wood, spruce needle litter, and moss litter. We added 0, 20, or 200 μg N to vials containing 200 mg substrate in factorial combination with five fungal species isolated from boreal soil, including an Ascomycete, a Zygomycete, and three Basidiomycetes. We hypothesized that N addition would increase CO2 mineralization from the substrates, particularly those with low N concentrations. In addition we predicted that Basidiomycetes would be more effective decomposers than the other fungi, but would respond weakly or negatively to N additions. In support of the first hypothesis, cumulative CO2 mineralization increased from 635 ± 117 to 806 + 108 μg C across all fungal species and substrates in response to 20 μg added N; however, there was no significant increase at the highest level of N addition. The positive effect of N addition was only significant on cellulose and wood substrates which contained very little N. We also observed clear differences in the substrate preferences of the fungal species. The Zygomycete mineralized little CO2 from any of the substrates, while the Basidiomycetes mineralized all of the substrates except spruce needles. However, the Ascomycete (Penicillium) was surprisingly efficient at mineralizing spruce wood and was the only species that substantially mineralized spruce litter. The activities of β-glucosidase and N-acetyl-glucosaminidase were strongly correlated with cumulative respiration (r = 0.78 and 0.74, respectively), and Penicillium was particularly effective at producing these enzymes. On moss litter, the different fungal species produced enzymes that targeted different chemical components. Overall, our results suggest that fungal species specialize on different organic substrates, and only respond to N addition on low N substrates, such as wood. Furthermore, the response to N addition is non-linear, with the greatest substrate mineralization at intermediate N levels.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-302
Number of pages10
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Boreal forest
  • Carbon dioxide
  • Cellulose
  • Extracellular enzyme
  • Global change
  • Litter decomposition
  • Microcosm
  • Moss
  • Nitrogen fertilization
  • Saprotrophic fungi

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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