, Volume 14, Issue 5, pp 710-719

First online:

Identification of General Patterns of Nutrient and Labile Carbon Control on Soil Carbon Dynamics Across a Successional Gradient

  • Alexandru MilcuAffiliated withDivision of Biology, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London Email author 
  • , Angela HeimAffiliated withDepartment of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Potsdam
  • , Richard J. EllisAffiliated withVeterinary Laboratories Agency, VLA Weybridge
  • , Stefan ScheuAffiliated withJ.F. Blumenbach Institute of Zoology and Anthropology, Georg-August-University Göttingen
  • , Pete ManningAffiliated withDivision of Biology, NERC Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College LondonSchool of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, Newcastle University

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Carbon (C) inputs and nutrient availability are known to affect soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks. However, general rules regarding the operation of these factors across a range of soil nutrient availabilities and substrate qualities are unidentified. “Priming” (stimulated decomposition by labile C inputs) and ‘preferential substrate utilization’ (retarded decomposition due to shifts in community composition towards microbes that do not mineralize SOC) are two hypotheses to explain effects of labile C additions on SOC dynamics. For effects of nutrient additions (nitrogen and phosphorus) on SOC dynamics, the stoichiometric (faster decomposition of materials of low carbon-to-nutrient ratios) and ‘microbial mining’ (that is, reduced breakdown of recalcitrant C forms for nutrients under fertile conditions) hypotheses have been proposed. Using the natural gradient of soil nutrient availability and substrate quality of a chronosequence, combined with labile C and nutrient amendments, we explored the support for these contrasting hypotheses. Additions of labile C, nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and combinations of C and N and C and P were applied to three sites: 2-year fallow grassland, mature grassland and forest, and the effects of site and nutrient additions on litter decomposition and soil C dynamics were assessed. The response to C addition supported the preferential substrate hypothesis for easily degradable litter C and the priming hypothesis for SOC, but only in nitrogen-enriched soils of the forest site. Responses to N addition supported the microbial mining hypothesis irrespective of C substrate (litter or SOC), but only in the forest site. Further, P addition effects on SOC support the stoichiometric hypothesis; P availability appeared key to soil C release (priming) in the forest site if labile C and N is available. These results clearly link previously contrasting hypotheses of the factors controlling SOC with the natural gradient in litter quality and nutrient availability that exists in ecosystems at different successional stages. A holistic theory that incorporates this variability of responses, due to different mechanisms, depending on nutrient availability and substrate quality is essential for devising management strategies to safeguard soil C stocks.


carbon sequestration priming effect microbial mining succession microorganisms litter decomposition