Particulate organic matter as a functional soil component

The largest terrestrial organic carbon pool, carbon in soils, is regulated by an intricate connection between plant carbon inputs, microbial activity, and the soil matrix. This is manifested by how microorganisms, the key players in transforming plant-derived carbon into soil organic carbon, are controlled by the physical arrangement of organic and inorganic soil particles. Here we conduct an incubation of isotopically labelled litter to study effects of soil structure on the fate of litter-derived organic matter. While microbial activity and fungal growth is enhanced in the coarser-textured soil, we show that occlusion of organic matter into aggregates and formation of organo-mineral associations occur concurrently on fresh litter surfaces regardless of soil structure.

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Fig: Cumulative heterotrophic respiration in fine-textured and coarse-textured soil

These two mechanisms—the two most prominent processes contributing to the persistence of organic matter—occur directly at plant–soil interfaces, where surfaces of litter constitute a nucleus in the build-up of soil carbon persistence. We extend the notion of plant litter, i.e., particulate organic matter, from solely an easily available and labile carbon substrate, to a functional component at which persistence of soil carbon is directly determined. 

Witzgall, K., Vidal, A., Schubert, D.I. et al. Particulate organic matter as a functional soil component for persistent soil organic carbon. Nat Commun 12, 4115 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-24192-8

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