Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Ecology, 94(7), 2013, pp. 1614–1625


Copyright 2013 by the Ecological Society of America


Heterotrophic microbes colonizing detritus obtain nitrogen (N) for growth by assimilating N from their substrate or immobilizing exogenous inorganic N. Microbial use of these two pools has different implications for N cycling and organic matter decomposition in the face of the global increase in biologically available N. We used sugar maple leaves labeled with 15N to differentiate between microbial N that had been assimilated from the leaf substrate (enriched with 15N) or immobilized from the water (natural abundance 15N:14N) in five Appalachian streams ranging in ambient NO3-N concentrations from about 5 to 900 lg NO3- N/L. Ambient NO3- concentration increased sugar maple decomposition rate but did not influence the proportion of microbial N derived from substrate or exogenous pools. Instead, these proportions were strongly influenced by the percentage of detrital ash-free dry mass (AFDM) remaining. Substrate-derived N made up a large proportion of the microbial N after the first 24 h in all streams. Detrital and microbial isotopic 15N signatures approached that of the water as decomposition progressed in all streams, suggesting that exogenous N may be the predominant source of N for meeting microbial requirements even when exogenous N concentrations are low. Our results support predictions of more rapid decomposition of organic matter in response to increased N availability and highlight the tight coupling of processes driving microbial N cycling and organic matter decomposition.