Decomposition of plant material is a complex process that requires interaction among a diversity of microorganisms whose presence and activity is subject to regulation by a wide range of environmental factors. Analysis of extracellular enzyme activity (EEA) provides a way to relate the functional organization of microdecomposer communities to environmental variables. In this study, we examined EEA in relation to litter composition and nitrogen deposition. Mesh bags containing senescent leaves of Quercus borealis (red oak), Acer rubrum (red maple) and Cornus florida (flowering dogwood) were placed on forest floor plots in southeastern New York. One-third of the plots were sprayed monthly with distilled water. The other plots were sprayed monthly with NH4NO3 solution at dose rates equivalent to 2 or 8 g N m-2 y-1. Mass loss, litter composition, fungal mass, and the activities of eight enzymes were measured on 13 dates for each litter type. Dogwood was followed for one year, maple for two, oak for three, For each litter type and treatment, enzymatic turnover activities were calculated from regressions of LN (%mass remaining) vs. cumulative activity. The decomposition of dogwood litter was more efficient than that of maple and oak. Maple litter had the lowest fungal mass and required the most enzymatic work to decompose, even though its mass loss rate was twice that of oak. Across litter types, N amendment reduced apparent enzymatic efficiencies and shifted EEA away from N acquisition and toward P acquisition, and away from polyphenol oxidation and toward polysaccharide hydrolysis. The effect of these shifts on decomposition rate varied with litter composition: dogwood was stimulated, oak was inhibited and maple showed mixed effects. The results show that relatively small shifts in the activity of one or two critical enzymes can significantly alter decomposition rates.
Additional publication details
Allocation of extracellular enzymatic activity in relation to litter composition, N deposition, and mass loss