Mineral–organic associations act as mediators of litter-derived N flow to the mineral soil, but the time scales and pathways involved are not well known. To close that gap, we took advantage of decade old 15N litter labeling experiments conducted in two European forests. We fractionated surface soils by density with limited disaggregating treatment and investigated organic matter (OM) characteristics using δ13C, δ15N and the C/N ratio. Mineral properties were studied by X-ray diffraction and selective dissolution of pedogenic oxides. Three types of associations were isolated: plant debris with few trapped minerals (<1.65 g/cm3), aggregates dominated by phyllosilicates (1.65–2.4 g/cm3), and single mineral grains and pedogenic oxides with little OM (>2.4 g/cm3). A small proportion of 15N tracer was rapidly attached to single mineral grains, while most of it moved from plant debris to aggregates of low density and progressively to aggregates of higher density that contain a more microbially processed OM. After a decade, 60% of the 15N tracer found in the investigated horizon was retained in aggregates, while plant debris still contained 40% of the tracer. We present a conceptual model of OM and N flow through soil mineral–organic associations, which accounts for changes in density, dynamics and chemistry of the isolated structures. It suggests that microbial reworking of OM entrapped within aggregates (1.65–2.4 g/cm3) causes the gradient of aggregate packing and, further on, controls the flow of litter-derived N through aggregates. For associations with denser material (>2.4 g/cm3), mineralogy determines the density of the association, the type of patchy OM attached to mineral surfaces and controls the extent of litter-derived N incorporation.
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