Stoichiometry constrains microbial response to root exudation- insights from a model and a field experiment in a temperate forest
Plant roots release a wide range of chemicals into soils. This process, termed root exudation, is thought to increase the activity of microbes and the exoenzymes they synthesize, leading to accelerated rates of carbon (C) mineralization and nutrient cycling in rhizosphere soils relative to bulk soils. The nitrogen (N) content of microbial biomass and exoenzymes may introduce a stoichiometric constraint on the ability of microbes to effectively utilize the root exudates, particularly if the exudates are rich in C but low in N. We combined a theoretical model of microbial activity with an exudation experiment to test the hypothesis that the ability of soil microbes to utilize root exudates for the synthesis of additional biomass and exoenzymes is constrained by N availability. The field experiment simulated exudation by automatically pumping solutions of chemicals often found in root exudates ("exudate mimics") containing C alone or C in combination with N (C : N ratio of 10) through microlysimeter "root simulators" into intact forest soils in two 50-day experiments. The delivery of C-only exudate mimics increased microbial respiration but had no effect on microbial biomass or exoenzyme activities. By contrast, experimental delivery of exudate mimics containing both C and N significantly increased microbial respiration, microbial biomass, and the activity of exoenzymes that decompose low molecular weight components of soil organic matter (SOM, e.g., cellulose, amino sugars), while decreasing the activity of exoenzymes that degrade high molecular weight SOM (e.g., polyphenols, lignin). The modeling results were consistent with the experiments; simulated delivery of C-only exudates induced microbial N-limitation, which constrained the synthesis of microbial biomass and exoenzymes. Exuding N as well as C alleviated this stoichiometric constraint in the model, allowing for increased exoenzyme production, the priming of decomposition, and a net release of N from SOM (i.e., mineralization). The quantity of N released from SOM in the model simulations was, under most circumstances, in excess of the N in the exudate pulse, suggesting that the exudation of N-containing compounds can be a viable strategy for plant-N acquisition via a priming effect. The experimental and modeling results were consistent with our hypothesis that N-containing compounds in root exudates affect rhizosphere processes by providing substrates for the synthesis of N-rich microbial biomass and exoenzymes. This study suggests that exudate stoichiometry is an important and underappreciated driver of microbial activity in rhizosphere soils.