Urea amendment decreases microbial diversity and selects for specific nitrifying strains in eight contrasting agricultural soils

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Application of nitrogen (N) fertilizers, predominantly as urea, is a major source of reactive N in the environment, with wide ranging effects including increased greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere and aquatic eutrophication. The soil microbial community is the principal driver of soil N cycling; thus, improved understanding of microbial community responses to urea addition has widespread implications. We used next-generation amplicon sequencing of the 16S rRNA gene to characterize bacterial and archaeal communities in eight contrasting agricultural soil types amended with 0, 100, or 500 μg N g-1 of urea and incubated for 21 days. We hypothesized that urea amendment would have common, direct effects on the abundance and diversity of members of the microbial community associated with nitrification, across all soils, and would further affect the broader heterotrophic community resulting in decreased diversity and variation in abundances of specific taxa. Significant (P < 0.001) differences in bacterial community diversity and composition were observed by site, but amendment with only the greatest urea concentration significantly decreased Shannon indices. Expansion in the abundances of members of the families Microbacteriaceae, Chitinophagaceae, Comamonadaceae, Xanthomonadaceae, and Nitrosomonadaceae were also consistently observed among all soils (linear discriminant analysis score = 3.0). Analysis of nitrifier genera revealed diverse, soil-specific distributions of oligotypes (strains), but few were correlated with nitrification gene abundances that were reported in a previous study. Our results suggest that the majority of the bacterial and archaeal community are likely unassociated with N cycling, but are significantly negatively impacted by urea application. Furthermore, these results reveal that amendment with high concentrations of urea may reduce nitrifier diversity, favoring specific strains, specifically those within the nitrifying genera Nitrobacter, Nitrospira, and Nitrosospira, that may play significant roles related to N cycling in soils receiving intensive urea inputs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number634
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberAPR
StatePublished - Apr 4 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 Staley, Breuillin-Sessoms, Wang, Kaiser, Venterea and Sadowsky.


  • Agriculture
  • Microbial community
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Soil
  • Urea


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