Elevated atmospheric CO2 and feedback between carbon and nitrogen cycles

TitleElevated atmospheric CO2 and feedback between carbon and nitrogen cycles
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication1993
AuthorsZak DR, Pregitzer KS, Curtis PS, Teeri JA, Fogel RD, Randlett DL
JournalPlant and Soil

We tested a conceptual model describing the influence of elevated atmospheric CO2 on plant production, soil microorganisms, and the cycling of C and N in the plant-soil system. Our model is based on the observation that in nutrient-poor soils, plants (C3) grown in an elevated CO2 atmosphere often increase production and allocation to belowground structures. We predicted that greater belowground C inputs at elevated CO2 should elicit an increase in soil microbial biomass and increased rates of organic matter turnover and nitrogen availability. We measured photosynthesis, biomass production, and C allocation of Populus grandidentata Michx. grown in nutrient-poor soil for one field season at ambient and twice-ambient (i.e., elevated) atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Plants were grown in a sandy subsurface soil i) at ambient CO2 with no open top chamber, ii) at ambient CO2 in an open top chamber, and iii) at twice-ambient CO2 in an open top chamber. Plants were fertilized with 4.5 g N m-2 over a 47 d period midway through the growing season. Following 152 d of growth, we quantified microbial biomass and the availabilities of C and N in rhizosphere and bulk soil. We tested for a significant CO2 effect on plant growth and soil C and N dynamics by comparing the means of the chambered ambient and chambered elevated CO2 treatments. Rates of photosynthesis in plants grown at elevated CO2 were significantly greater than those measured under ambient conditions. The number of roots, root length, and root length increment were also substantially greater at elevated CO2. Total and belowground biomass were significantly greater at elevated CO2. Under N-limited conditions, plants allocated 50-70% of their biomass to roots. Labile C in the rhizosphere of elevated-grown plants was significantly greater than that measured in the ambient treatments; there were no significant differences between labile C pools in the bulk soil of ambient and elevated-grown plants. Microbial biomass C was significantly greater in the rhizosphere and bulk soil of plants grown at elevated CO2 compared to that in the ambient treatment. Moreover, a short-term laboratory assay of N mineralization indicated that N availability was significantly greater in the bulk soil of the elevated-grown plants. Our results suggest that elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations can have a positive feedback effect on soil C and N dynamics producing greater N availability. Experiments conducted for longer periods of time will be necessary to test the potential for negative feedback due to altered leaf litter chemistry.