The influence of inorganic nitrogen (N) inputs on decomposition is poorly understood. Some prior studies suggest that N may reduce the decomposition of substrates with high concentrations of lignin via inhibitory effects on the activity of lignin-degrading enzymes, although such inhibition has not always been demonstrated. I studied the effects of N addition on decomposition of seven substrates ranging in initial lignin concentrations (from 7.4% to 25.6%) over five years in eight different grassland and forest sites in central Minnesota, USA. I predicted that N would stimulate the decomposition of lignin-poor substrates but retard the decomposition of lignin-rich substrates. Across these sites, N had neutral or negative effects on decomposition rates. However, in contrast to my hypothesis, effects of N on decomposition were independent of substrate initial lignin concentrations, and decomposition of the lignin fraction was unaffected by N fertilization. Rather, substrate-site combinations that exhibited more rapid decomposition rates in the control treatment were affected more negatively by addition of N fertilization. Taken together, these results suggest that decreased decomposition with added N did not result from inhibition of lignin-degrading enzyme activity, but may have resulted from abiotic interactions between N fertilizer and products of microbial degradation or synthesis or from N effects on the decomposer community. Low initial substrate N concentrations and N fertilization both stimulated N immobilization, but the differences among substrates were generally much larger than the effects of fertilization. This study suggests that atmospheric N addition could stimulate ecosystem carbon sequestration in some ecosystems as a result of reduced rates of forest floor decomposition.
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