Links between microbial population dynamics and nitrogen availability in an alpine ecosystem

David A. Lipson, Steven K. Schmidt, Russell K. Monson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

312 Scopus citations


Past studies of plant-microbe interactions in the alpine nitrogen cycle have revealed a seasonal separation of N use, with plants absorbing N primarily during the summer months and microbes immobilizing N primarily during the autumn months. On the basis of these studies, it has been concluded that competition for N between plants and microbes is minimized along this seasonal gradient. In this study, we examined more deeply the links between microbial population dynamics and plant N availability in an alpine dry meadow. We conducted a year-round field study and performed experiments on isolated soil microorganisms. Based on previous work in this ecosystem, we hypothesized that microbial biomass would decline before the plant growing season and would release N that would become available to plants. Microbial biomass was highest when soils were cold, in autumn, winter, and early spring. During this time, N was immobilized in microbial biomass. After snow melt in spring, microbial biomass decreased. A peak in the soil protein concentration was seen at this time, followed by peaks in soil amino acid and ammonium concentrations in late June. Soil protease rates were initially high after snow melt, decreased to below detection limits by midsummer, and partially recovered by late summer. Proteolytic activity in soil was saturated early in the growing season and became protein limited later in the summer. We concluded that the key event controlling N availability to alpine plants occurs after snow melt, when protein is released from the winter microbial biomass. This protein pulse provides substrate for soil proteases, which supply plants with amino acids during the growing season. On average, microbial biomass was lower in the summer than at other times, although the biomass fluctuated widely during the summer. Within the summer months, maximum numbers of amino-acid-degrading microorganisms and the maximum amount of microbial biomass coincided with the peak in soil amino acids, when plants are most active. All bacterial strains isolated from this summer community had the ability to grow rapidly on low concentrations of amino acids and to degrade protein. This explains the previously observed result that the soil microbial biomass can compete strongly with plants for organic N, despite the seasonal offset of maximum plant and microbial N uptake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1623-1631
Number of pages9
Issue number5
StatePublished - Jul 1999


  • Alpine tundra
  • Kobresia myosuroides
  • Microbial population dynamics
  • N uptake, seasonal
  • Nitrogen availability
  • Organic nitrogen
  • Soil microorganisms
  • Soil protease activity
  • Substrate-induced growth response
  • Temporal partitioning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


Dive into the research topics of 'Links between microbial population dynamics and nitrogen availability in an alpine ecosystem'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this