Headwater streams draining agricultural landscapes receive maize leaves (Zea mays L.) via wind and surface runoff, yet the contribution of maize detritus to organic-matter processing in agricultural streams is largely unknown. We quantified decomposition and microbial respiration rates on conventional (non-Bt) and genetically engineered (Bt) maize in three low-order agricultural streams in northwestern Indiana, USA. We also examined how substrate quality and in-stream nutrient concentrations influenced microbial respiration on maize by comparing respiration on maize and red maple leaves (Acer rubrum) in three nutrient-rich agricultural streams and three low-nutrient forested streams. We found significantly higher rates of microbial respiration on maize vs. red maple leaves and higher rates in agricultural vs. forested streams. Thus both the elevated nutrient status of agricultural streams and the lability of maize detritus (e.g., low carbon-to-nitrogen ratio and low lignin content) result in a rapid incorporation of maize leaves into the aquatic microbial food web. We found that Bt maize had a faster decomposition rate than non-Bt maize, while microbial respiration rates did not differ between Bt and non-Bt maize. Decomposition rates were not negatively affected by genetic engineering, perhaps because the Bt toxin does not adversely affect the aquatic microbial assemblage involved in maize decomposition. Additionally, shredding caddisflies, which are known to have suppressed growth rates when fed Bt maize, were depauperate in these agricultural streams, and likely did not play a major role in maize decomposition. Overall, the conversion of native vegetation to row-crop agriculture appears to have altered the quantity, quality, and predictability of allochthonous carbon inputs to headwater streams, with unexplored effects on stream ecosystem structure and function.

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