Soil microbial C:N:P stoichiometry and microbial maintenance respiration (i.e. metabolic quotient, qCO2) were monitored along a nutrient gradient in soils from a 52-year space-for-time chronosequence of reclaimed agricultural land after brown-coal mining. Land reclamation produced loess soils of initially low (0.2%) SOC. Consecutive agricultural land management led to a gradual recovery of SOC contents. Our data revealed sudden shifts in microbial stoichiometry and metabolic quotient with increasing SOC at a critical value of 1% SOC. As SOC increased, accrual rate of C into microbial biomass decreased, whereas microbial N increased. Simultaneously, metabolic quotient strongly decreased with increasing SOC until the same critical value of 1% SOC and remained at a constant low thereafter. The microbial fractions of the soil in samples containing < 1% SOC were out of stoichiometric equilibrium and were inefficient at immobilising C due to high maintenance respiration. Increasing SOC above the threshold value shifted the soil microbes towards a new equilibrium where N became growth limiting, leading to a more efficient acquisition of C. The shift in microbial N accrual was preluded by high variation in microbial biomass N in soils containing 0.5–0.9% SOC indicative of a regime shift between microbial stoichiometric equilibria. Our data may help in establishing a quantitative framework for SOC targets that, along with agricultural intensification, may better support feedback mechanisms for a sustainable accrual of C in soils.
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