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Journal Article

Inhibition of nitrification alters carbon turnover in the Patagonian steppe

Authors: Austin, AT, OE Sala, RB Jackson

Human activities are altering biodiversity and the nitrogen (N) cycle, affecting terrestrial carbon (C) cycling globally. Only a few specialized bacteria carry out nitrification�the transformation of ammonium (NH4+) to nitrate (NO3-), in terrestrial ecosystems, which determines the form and mobility of inorganic N in soils. However, the control of nitrification on C cycling in natural ecosystems is poorly understood. In an ecosystem experiment in the Patagonian steppe, we inhibited autotrophic nitrification and measured its effects on C and N cycling. Decreased net nitrification increased total mineral N and NH4+ and reduced NO3- in the soil. Plant cover (P < 0.05) and decomposition (P < 0.0001) decreased with inhibition of nitrification, in spite of increases in NH4+ availability. There were significant changes in the natural abundance of _15N in the dominant vegetation when nitrification was inhibited suggesting that a switch occurred in the form of N (from NO3- to NH4+ ) taken up by plants. Results from a controlled-condition experiment supported the field results by showing that the dominant plant species of the Patagonian steppe have a marked preference for nitrate. Our results indicate that nitrifying bacteria exert a major control on ecosystem functioning, and that the inhibition of nitrification results in significant alteration of the C cycle. The interactions between the C and N cycles suggest that rates of C cycling are affected not just by the amount of available N, but also by the relative availability for plant uptake of NH4+ and NO3- .
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