Quantum Dots Reveal Shifts in Organic Nitrogen Uptake by Fungi Exposed to Long-Term Nitrogen Enrichment

Anthropogenic nitrogen (N) enrichment can alter N dynamics associated with decomposing plant litter. However, it is unclear to what extent these alterations occur via microbial effects (e.g., changes in gene regulation, physiology, or community composition) versus plant litter effects (e.g., changes in composition of N and C compounds). To isolate microbial effects from plant litter effects, we collected plant litter from long-term N fertilized and control plots, reciprocally inoculated it with microbes from the two treatments, and incubated it in a common field setting for three months. We used quantum dots (QDs) to track fungal uptake of glycine and chitosan. Glycine is a relatively simple organic N compound; chitosan is more complex. We found that microbial and litter origins each contributed to a shift in fungal uptake capacities under N fertilization. Specifically, N fungi preferred glycine over chitosan, but control fungi did not. In comparison, litter effects were more subtle, and manifested as a three-way interaction between litter origin, microbial origin, and type of organic N (glycine versus chitosan). In particular, control fungi tended to target chitosan only when incubated with control litter, while N fungi targeted glycine regardless of litter type. Overall, microbial effects may mediate how N dynamics respond to anthropogenic N enrichment in ecosystems.