Plant residue decomposition and the nutrient release to the soil play a major role in global carbon and nutrient cycling. Although decomposition rates vary strongly with climate, nitrogen immobilization into litter and its release in mineral forms are mainly controlled by the initial chemical composition of the residues. We used a data set of ∼2800 observations to show that these global nitrogen-release patterns can be explained by fundamental stoichiometric relationships of decomposer activity. We show how litter quality controls the transition from nitrogen accumulation into the litter to release and alters decomposers' respiration patterns. Our results suggest that decomposers lower their carbon-use efficiency to exploit residues with low initial nitrogen concentration, a strategy used broadly by bacteria and consumers across trophic levels.
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