Molecular C dynamics downstream: The biochemical decomposition sequence and its impact on soil organic matter structure and function


Advances in spectroscopic and other chemical methods have greatly enhanced our ability to characterize soil organic matter chemistry. As a result, the molecular characteristics of soil C are now known for a range of ecosystems, soil types, and management intensities. Placing this knowledge into a broader ecological and management context is difficult, however, and remains one of the fundamental challenges of soil organic matter research. Here we present a conceptual model of molecular soil C dynamics to stimulate inter-disciplinary research into the ecological implications of molecular C turnover and its management- and process-level controls. Our model describes three properties of soil C dynamics: 1) soil size fractions have unique molecular patterns that reflect varying degrees of biological and physical control over decomposition; 2) there is a common decomposition sequence independent of plant inputs or other ecosystem properties; and 3) molecular decomposition sequences, although consistent, are not uniform and can be altered by processes that accelerate or slow the microbial transformation of specific molecules. The consequences of this model include several key points. First, lignin presents a constraint to decomposition of plant litter and particulate C (> 53 μm) but exerts little influence on more stable mineral-associated soil fractions < 53 μm. Second, carbon stabilized onto mineral fractions has a distinct composition related more to microbially processed organic matter than to plant-related compounds. Third, disturbances, such as N fertilization and tillage, which alter decomposition rates, can have “downstream effects”; that is, a disturbance that directly alters the molecular dynamics of particulate C may have a series of indirect effects on C stabilization in silt and clay fractions.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

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Science of The Total Environment



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