Chronic nitrogen fertilization and carbon sequestration in grassland soils: evidence of a microbial enzyme link

Valeria L. Cenini, Dario A. Fornara*, Geoffrey McMullan, Nigel Ternan, Kate Lajtha, Michael J. Crawley

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

30 Citations (Scopus)
253 Downloads (Pure)


Chronic nitrogen (N) fertilization can greatly affect soil carbon (C) sequestration by altering biochemical interactions between plant detritus and soil microbes. In lignin-rich forest soils, chronic N additions tend to increase soil C content partly by decreasing the activity of lignin-degrading enzymes. In cellulose-rich grassland soils it is not clear whether cellulose-degrading enzymes are also inhibited by N additions and what consequences this might have on changes in soil C content. Here we address whether chronic N fertilization has affected (1) the C content of light versus heavier soil fractions, and (2) the activity of four extracellular enzymes including the C-acquiring enzyme β-1,4-glucosidase (BG; necessary for cellulose hydrolysis). We found that 19 years of chronic N-only addition to permanent grassland have significantly increased soil C sequestration in heavy but not in light soil density fractions, and this C accrual was associated with a significant increase (and not decrease) of BG activity. Chronic N fertilization may increase BG activity because greater N availability reduces root C:N ratios thus increasing microbial demand for C, which is met by C inputs from enhanced root C pools in N-only fertilized soils. However, BG activity and total root mass strongly decreased in high pH soils under the application of lime (i.e. CaCO3), which reduced the ability of these organo-mineral soils to gain more C per units of N added. Our study is the first to show a potential ‘enzyme link’ between (1) long-term additions of inorganic N to grassland soils, and (2) the greater C content of organo-mineral soil fractions. Our new hypothesis is that the ‘enzyme link’ occurs because (a) BG activity is stimulated by increased microbial C demand relative to N under chronic fertilization, and (b) increased BG activity causes more C from roots and from microbial metabolites to accumulate and stabilize into organo-mineral C fractions. We suggest that any combination of management practices that can influence the BG ‘enzyme link’ will have far reaching implications for long-term C sequestration in grassland soils.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)301-313
Number of pages13
Issue number3
Early online date14 Nov 2015
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Extracellular enzyme activity
  • Fertilization
  • Liming
  • Root C:N ratio
  • Soil carbon sequestration
  • β-1,4-Glucosidase

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes

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