skip to main content

Title: Mineral weathering is linked to microbial priming in the critical zone

Decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM) can be stimulated by fresh organic matter input, a phenomenon known as the ‘priming effect’. Despite its global importance, the relationship of the priming effect to mineral weathering and nutrient release remains unclear. Here we show close linkages between mineral weathering in the critical zone and primed decomposition of SOM. Intensified mineral weathering and rock-derived nutrient release are generally coupled with primed SOM decomposition resulting from “triggered” microbial activity. Fluxes of organic matter products decomposed via priming are linearly correlated with weathering congruency. Weathering congruency influences the formation of organo-mineral associations, thereby modulating the accessibility of organic matter to microbial decomposers and, thus, the priming effect. Our study links weathering with primed SOM decomposition, which plays a key role in controlling soil C dynamics in space and time. These connections represent fundamental links between long-term lithogenic element cycling (= weathering) and rapid turnover of carbon and nutrients (= priming) in soil.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Publisher / Repository:
Nature Publishing Group
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Nature Communications
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Boreal forests harbor as much carbon (C) as the atmosphere and significant amounts of organic nitrogen (N), the nutrient most likely to limit plant productivity in high‐latitude ecosystems. In the boreal biome, the primary disturbance is wildfire, which consumes plant biomass and soil material, emits greenhouse gasses, and influences long‐term C and N cycling. Climate warming and drying is increasing wildfire severity and frequency and is combusting more soil organic matter (SOM). Combustion of surface SOM exposes deeper older layers of accumulated soil material that previously escaped combustion during past fires, here termed legacy SOM. Postfire SOM decomposition and nutrient availability are determined by these layers, but the drivers of legacy SOM decomposition are unknown. We collected soils from plots after the largest fire year on record in the Northwest Territories, Canada, in 2014. We used radiocarbon dating to measure Δ14C (soil age index), soil extractions to quantify N pools and microbial biomass, and a 90‐day laboratory incubation to measure the potential rate of element mineralization and understand patterns and drivers of legacy SOM C decomposition and N availability. We discovered that bulk soil C age predicted C decomposition, where cumulatively, older soil (approximately −450.0‰) produced 230% less C during the incubation than younger soil (~0.0‰). Soil age also predicted C turnover times, with old soil turnover 10 times slower than young soil. We found respired C was younger than bulk soil C, indicating most C enters and leaves relatively quickly, while the older portion remains a stable C sink. Soil age and other indices were unrelated to N availability, but microbial biomass influenced N availability, with more microbial biomass immobilizing soil N pools. Our results stress the importance of legacy SOM as a stable C sink and highlight that soil age drives the pace and magnitude of soil C contributions to the atmosphere between wildfires.

    more » « less
  2. Abstract

    It remains unclear how warming will affect resource flows during soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition, in part due to uncertainty in how exoenzymes produced by microbes and roots will function. Rising temperatures can enhance the activity of most exoenzymes, but soil pH can impose limitations on their catalytic efficiency. The effects of temperature and pH on enzyme activity are often examined in environmental samples, but purified enzyme kinetics reveal fundamental attributes of enzymes’ intrinsic temperature responses and how relative release of decay‐liberated resources (their flow ratios) can change with environmental conditions. In this paper, we illuminate the principle that fundamental, biochemical limitations on SOM release of C, N, and P during decay, and differential exoenzymes’ responses to the environment, can exert biosphere‐scale significance on the stoichiometry of bioavailable soil resources. To that end, we combined previously published intrinsic temperature sensitivities of two hydrolytic enzymes that release C and N during decay with a novel data set characterizing the kinetics of a P‐releasing enzyme (acid phosphatase) across an ecologically relevant pH gradient. We use these data to estimate potential change in the flow ratios derived from these three enzymes’ activities (C:N, C:P, and N:P) at the global scale by the end of the century, based on temperature projections and soil pH distribution. Our results highlight how the temperature sensitivity of these hydrolytic enzymes and the influence of pH on that sensitivity can govern the relative availability of bioavailable resources derived from these enzymes. The work illuminates the utility of weaving well‐defined kinetic constraints of microbes’ exoenzymes into models that incorporate changing SOM inputs and composition, nutrient availability, and microbial functioning into their efforts to project terrestrial ecosystem functioning in a changing climate.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    Conceptual and empirical advances in soil biogeochemistry have challenged long-held assumptions about the role of soil micro-organisms in soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics; yet, rigorous tests of emerging concepts remain sparse. Recent hypotheses suggest that microbial necromass production links plant inputs to SOC accumulation, with high-quality (i.e., rapidly decomposing) plant litter promoting microbial carbon use efficiency, growth, and turnover leading to more mineral stabilization of necromass. We test this hypothesis experimentally and with observations across six eastern US forests, using stable isotopes to measure microbial traits and SOC dynamics. Here we show, in both studies, that microbial growth, efficiency, and turnover are negatively (not positively) related to mineral-associated SOC. In the experiment, stimulation of microbial growth by high-quality litter enhances SOC decomposition, offsetting the positive effect of litter quality on SOC stabilization. We suggest that microbial necromass production is not the primary driver of SOC persistence in temperate forests. Factors such as microbial necromass origin, alternative SOC formation pathways, priming effects, and soil abiotic properties can strongly decouple microbial growth, efficiency, and turnover from mineral-associated SOC.

    more » « less
  4. Inhabiting the interface between plant roots and soil, mycorrhizal fungi play a unique but underappreciated role in soil organic matter (SOM) dynamics. Their hyphae provide an efficient mechanism for distributing plant carbon throughout the soil, facilitating its deposition into soil pores and onto mineral surfaces, where it can be protected from microbial attack. Mycorrhizal exudates and dead tissues contribute to the microbial necromass pool now known to play a dominant role in SOM formation and stabilization. While mycorrhizal fungi lack the genetic capacity to act as saprotrophs, they use several strategies to access nutrients locked in SOM and thereby promote its decay, including direct enzymatic breakdown, oxidation via Fenton chemistry, and stimulation of heterotrophic microorganisms through carbon provision to the rhizosphere. An additional mechanism, competition with free-living saprotrophs, potentially suppresses SOM decomposition, leading to its accumulation. How these various nutrient acquisition strategies differentially influence SOM formation, stabilization, and loss is an area of critical research need. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    As climate change increases fire frequency in Mediterranean‐type shrublands, it is essential to understand the links between common postfire plant assemblages and soil nitrogen (N) and carbon (C) cycling during succession. In California chaparral, periodic fire removes shrub cover, deposits ammonium (NH4+‐N) on soils, and allows herbaceous assemblages to dominate for 3–5 years. Herbs influence soil biogeochemistry through several mechanisms, including nutrient uptake, litter decomposition, and rhizodeposition. Controlled experimental removal of select plant groups from wild assemblages can demonstrate interactions between plant groups and how plant traits influence belowground processes. In a two‐year herb‐removal experiment, we investigated the impact of N‐fixing and non‐N‐fixing herbs on soil N and C cycling. Treatments were (1) all herbs, (2) only non‐N‐fixing species, (3) only N‐fixing species, and (4) no herbs. In high‐N environments, N‐fixers were predicted to compete poorly against non‐N‐fixing neighbors. N‐fixers doubled in abundance when non‐N‐fixers were removed, but non‐N‐fixers were unaffected by N‐fixer removal. Two years after fire, no‐herbs plots had the lowest soil microbial respiration rates, and total accumulated C and N were lower than all‐herb plots. Two treatments, no‐herb and N‐fixer plots, had elevated mineral N concentrations, net N mineralization, and net nitrification in the second year of the experiment. Our findings underscore the importance of fire‐following herbs for postfire N retention and organic matter accumulation. A combination of both N‐fixing and non‐N‐fixing herbs maximized total soil C and N, although the accumulation of TC and TN in all‐herb plots was not significantly higher than in non‐N‐fixer plots. Results demonstrated the key role of non‐N‐fixing herbs in accumulating soil C and herbaceous communities for retaining N. Elevated soil nutrient availability two years postfire may contribute to the long‐term recovery of shrubs, even after herbs are no longer dominant. Future investigations should also consider the magnitude of soil microbial N retention in plots with different herb functional groups, along with the species‐specific contribution of non‐N‐fixing herbs to postfire C and N cycling.

    more » « less