Microbial nutrient limitation along a 2-million-year dune chronosequence

Benjamin L. Turner, Hans Lambers, Zhihui Wen, Yasha Maria Auer, Ellen Kandeler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Long-term ecosystem development is characterized by a switch from nitrogen (N) to phosphorus (P) limitation of plant communities as soils age, which leads to changes in plant biomass, diversity, and foliar nutrient concentrations. Similar effects occur belowground, although the extent to which nutrient availability is the primary driver of long-term changes in soil microbial communities remains uncertain. To investigate this, we assessed proxies for soil microbial nutrient limitation along the Jurien Bay dune chronosequence in Western Australia, where a long-term decline in P availability is reflected in strong variation in plant and microbial community composition over 2 million years of soil development. We quantified carbon (C), N, and P in the soil microbial biomass, assayed soil enzymes involved in the acquisition of those nutrients from soil organic matter, and used microbial stoichiometric ratios and vector analysis of enzyme activities to assess whether long-term changes in soil nutrient availability are reflected in nutrient demand by soil microbes. Concentrations of microbial nutrients peaked in Holocene soils (1–6.5 ky), although differences in microbial P were not significant. There were no significant differences in microbial nutrient ratios (C:N, C:P, and N:P) along the chronosequence. Acid phosphatase activity increased continually throughout the chronosequence, while the activities of leucine aminopeptidase and β-glucosidase were greatest in Holocene soils and declined with increasing soil age. Corresponding vector lengths indicated greater investment in C-degrading enzymes in Holocene soils (≤6.5 ky), while vector angles indicated greater investment in the acquisition of P compared with N in Pleistocene soils (≥120 ky). Overall, these findings show that changes in nutrient availability during long-term pedogenesis at Jurien Bay are reflected in microbial investment in nutrient acquisition, but that the soil microbial biomass exhibits a remarkable degree of homeostasis despite major shifts in nutrient availability and community composition over 2 million years of ecosystem development.

Original languageEnglish
Article number109385
Number of pages11
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Early online date11 Mar 2024
Publication statusPublished - May 2024


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