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Ammonia oxidizer populations vary with nitrogen cycling across a tropical montane mean annual temperature gradient


  • Corresponding Editor: Steven D. Allison


Functional gene approaches have been used to better understand the roles of microbes in driving forest soil nitrogen (N) cycling rates and bioavailability. Ammonia oxidation is a rate limiting step in nitrification, and is a key area for understanding environmental constraints on N availability in forests. We studied how increasing temperature affects the role of ammonia oxidizing archaea (AOA) and bacteria (AOB) in soil N cycling and availability by using a highly constrained natural mean annual temperature (MAT) elevation gradient in a tropical montane wet forest. We found that net nitrate (NO3) bioavailability is positively related to MAT (r= 0.79, = 0.0033), and AOA DNA abundance is positively related to both NO3 availability (r= 0.34, P = 0.0071) and MAT (r= 0.34, < 0.001). In contrast, AOB DNA was only detected in some soils across the gradient. We identified three distinct phylotypes within the AOA which differed from one another in abundance and relative gene expression. In addition, one AOA phylotype increased in abundance with MAT, while others did not. We conclude that MAT is the primary driver of ecosystem N availability across this gradient, and AOA population size and structure appear to mediate the relationship between the nitrification and N bioavailability. These findings hold important implications for nutrient limitation in forests and feedbacks to primary production under changing climate.