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Soil Biology and Biochemistry
Vol. 109, 2017, Pages: 214–226

Spatial and temporal dynamics of nitrogen fixing, nitrifying and denitrifying microbes in an unfertilized grassland soil

Kathleen Regan, Barbara Stempfhuber, Michael Schloter, Frank Rasche, Daniel Prati, Laurent Philippot, Runa S. Boeddinghaus, Ellen Kandeler, Sven Marhan

Institute of Soil Science and Land Evaluation, Soil Biology Section, University of Hohenheim, Emil-Wolff-Str. 27, 70599 Stuttgart, Germany.


The microbial groups of nitrogen fixers, ammonia oxidizers, and denitrifiers largely drive the inorganic nitrogen cycle in temperate terrestrial ecosystems. Their spatial and temporal dynamics, however, vary depending on the studied scale. The present study aimed to fill a knowledge gap by providing an explicit picture of spatial and temporal dynamics of a subset of these soil microorganisms at the plot scale. We selected an unfertilized perennial grassland, where nitrogen cycling is considered to be efficient and tightly coupled to plant growth. At six times over one growing season 60 soil samples were taken from a 10 m × 10 m area and abundances of marker genes for total archaea and bacteria (16S rRNA), nitrogen fixing bacteria (nifH), ammonia oxidizing archaea (amoA AOA) and bacteria (amoA AOB), and denitrifying bacteria (nirSnirK and nosZ) were determined by qPCR. Potential nitrification activity (PNA) and denitrifying enzyme activity (DEA) were determined. Seasonal changes in abundance patterns of marker genes were detected, and were associated with changes in substrate availability associated with plant growth stages. Potential nitrification and denitrification enzyme activities were strongly spatially structured at the studied scale, corresponding to periods of rapid plant growth, June and October, and their spatial distributions were similar, providing visual evidence of highly localized spatial and temporal conditions at this scale. Temporal variability in the N-cycling communities versus the stability of their respective potential activities provided evidence of both short-lived temporal niche partitioning and a degree of microbial functional redundancy. Our results indicate that in an unfertilized grassland, at the meter scale, abundances of microbial N-cycling organisms can exhibit transient changes, while nitrogen cycling processes remain stable.

Keywords: Ammonia-oxidation; Denitrification; Potential enzyme activity; Biogeography; Niche-partitioning; Spatio-temporal variability.

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