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Legume defoliation affects rhizosphere decomposers, but not the uptake of organic matter N by a neighbouring grass

Saj S., Mikola J., Ekelund F.. 2008. Plant and Soil, 311 (1) : p. 141-149.

DOI: 10.1007/s11104-008-9665-6

Legume¿grass interactions have a great influence on grassland primary production and it was recently shown how defoliation of a legume can increase the transfer of fixed N to a neighbouring grass. It has also been shown that defoliation of a plant can increase soil microbial activity and lead to better soil N availability in the rhizosphere of the defoliated plant. We combined these two perspectives and tested whether defoliation of a legume (Lotus corniculatus) can enhance N nutrition of the neighbouring grass (Holcus lanatus) by increasing growth of soil decomposer biota and the availability of soil organic matter N for grass uptake. We grew mixtures of L. corniculatus and H. lanatus in grassland soil that included 15N-labelled L. corniculatus litter. In half of the systems, we subjected L. corniculatus to a defoliation treatment mimicking insect larvae feeding. At destructive harvests 1, 3, 9 and 30 days after the last defoliation event, we determined how L. corniculatus defoliation affected decomposer microbes, protozoa and nematodes and whether these changes among decomposers created a feedback on the growth and 15N uptake of the neighbouring H. lanatus. Defoliation reduced the growth and litter-N uptake, but increased shoot N concentration of L. corniculatus. Of the soil variables measured, defoliation doubled the number of bacterial-feeding protozoa, but did not affect the abundance of decomposer microbes and bacterial- and fungal-feeding nematodes. Defoliation did not have statistically significant effects on H. lanatus shoot growth, shoot N concentration or litter-N uptake. Our results demonstrate how defoliation-induced changes in legume ecophysiology can affect the growth of decomposers in soil. However, these effects did not appear to lead to a significant change in the availability of soil organic N to the neighbouring grass. It seems that when positive effects of legume defoliation on grass N nutrition are found in grassland ecosystems, these are more likely to be explained by direct transfer of fixed N rather than changes in the availability of soil organic matter N.

Mots-clés : lotus corniculatus; holcus lanatus; plante pour herbage; prairie; interactions biologiques; défoliation; matière organique du sol; physiologie de la nutrition; physiologie végétale; protozoa; nematoda; litière végétale; biodégradation; légumineuse; graminée; relation plante sol; micro-organisme du sol; rhizosphère; pays-bas; finlande

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