, Volume 133, Issue 2, pp 215-223

Periodic carbon flushing to roots of Quercus rubra saplings affects soil respiration and rhizosphere microbial biomass

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Patterns of root/shoot carbon allocation within plants have been studied at length. The extent, however, to which patterns of carbon allocation from shoots to roots affect the timing and quantity of organic carbon release from roots to soil is not known. We employed a novel approach to study how natural short-term variation in the allocation of carbon to roots may affect rhizosphere soil biology. Taking advantage of the semi-determinate phenology of young northern red oak (Quercus rubra L.), we examined how pulsed delivery of carbon from shoots to roots affected dynamics of soil respiration as well as microbial biomass and net nitrogen mineralization in the rhizosphere. Young Q. rubra exhibit (1) clear switches in the amount of carbon allocated below-ground that are non-destructively detected simply by observing pulsed shoot growth above-ground, and (2) multiple switches in internal carbon allocation during a single growing season, ensuring our ability to detect short-term effects of plant carbon allocation on rhizosphere biology separate from longer-term seasonal effects. In both potted oaks and oaks rooted in soil, soil respiration varied inversely with shoot flush stage through several oak shoot flushes. In addition, upon destructive harvest of potted oaks, microbial biomass in the rhizosphere of saplings with actively flushing shoots was lower than microbial biomass in the rhizosphere of saplings with shoots that were not flushing. Given that plants have evolved with their roots in contact with soil microbes, known species-specific carbon allocation patterns within plants may provide insight into interactions among roots, symbionts, and free-living microbes in the dynamic soil arena.

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