Changes in nitrogen functional genes and microbial populations in soil profiles of a peatland under different burning regimes

Microbes in peatlands provide key ecosystem services and are essential for their role in biogeochemical cycling. Prescribed burning is a common aspect of peatland management but the practice has been criticized for being ecologically damaging due to its effect on the biological, chemical and physical properties of the soil. It is poorly understood how burning affects soil N cycling and previous studies have focused predominantly on the topsoil whilst giving less attention to changes with soil depth. This study investigated the changes of microbial abundance (bacterial 16S rRNA and fungal 18S rRNA) and the abundance of N-cycle functional genes involved in archaeal and bacterial ammonia oxidation (amoA-AOA and amoA-AOB), denitrification (nirK and nirS), N fixation (nifH) and organic N decomposition (chiA) in soil profiles across three burn treatments on a managed peatland landscape (a ‘non-burn’ since 1954 control, 20 years burn interval, and 10 years burn interval). Our results indicate the abundance of bacterial 16S rRNA and fungal 18s rRNA was affected by burn treatment, soil depth and their interaction and were greater in the non-burn control plots. The abundances of amoA-AOA, amoA-AOB, and nifH were significantly higher in the topsoil of the non-burn control plots while the abundance of nirK was higher in plots subject to short rotation and long rotation burn regimes but also decreased significantly with soil depth. The abundance of nirS was not affected by burn treatment or soil depth. ChiA abundance was affected by burn treatment, soil depth and their interaction. N-cycle functional gene abundance responded differently to environmental factors associated with prescribed burning and varied with soil depth. These findings suggest that the practice of burning affects microbial N turnover potential and provides an important insight into the soil N-cycling potential of peatlands under different burning regimes.