Regular Article

Plant and Soil

, Volume 338, Issue 1, pp 143-158

First online:

Deep soil organic matter—a key but poorly understood component of terrestrial C cycle

  • Cornelia RumpelAffiliated withCNRS, BIOEMCO (UMR CNRS-Université Paris VI, XII-IRD-AgroParisTech), Campus AgroParisTech Email author 
  • , Ingrid Kögel-KnabnerAffiliated withLehrstuhl für Bodenkunde, Technische Universität München

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Despite their low carbon (C) content, most subsoil horizons contribute to more than half of the total soil C stocks, and therefore need to be considered in the global C cycle. Until recently, the properties and dynamics of C in deep soils was largely ignored. The aim of this review is to synthesize literature concerning the sources, composition, mechanisms of stabilisation and destabilization of soil organic matter (SOM) stored in subsoil horizons. Organic C input into subsoils occurs in dissolved form (DOC) following preferential flow pathways, as aboveground or root litter and exudates along root channels and/or through bioturbation. The relative importance of these inputs for subsoil C distribution and dynamics still needs to be evaluated. Generally, C in deep soil horizons is characterized by high mean residence times of up to several thousand years. With few exceptions, the carbon-to-nitrogen (C/N) ratio is decreasing with soil depth, while the stable C and N isotope ratios of SOM are increasing, indicating that organic matter (OM) in deep soil horizons is highly processed. Several studies suggest that SOM in subsoils is enriched in microbial-derived C compounds and depleted in energy-rich plant material compared to topsoil SOM. However, the chemical composition of SOM in subsoils is soil-type specific and greatly influenced by pedological processes. Interaction with the mineral phase, in particular amorphous iron (Fe) and aluminum (Al) oxides was reported to be the main stabilization mechanism in acid and near neutral soils. In addition, occlusion within soil aggregates has been identified to account for a great proportion of SOM preserved in subsoils. Laboratory studies have shown that the decomposition of subsoil C with high residence times could be stimulated by addition of labile C. Other mechanisms leading to destabilisation of SOM in subsoils include disruption of the physical structure and nutrient supply to soil microorganisms. One of the most important factors leading to protection of SOM in subsoils may be the spatial separation of SOM, microorganisms and extracellular enzyme activity possibly related to the heterogeneity of C input. As a result of the different processes, stabilized SOM in subsoils is horizontally stratified. In order to better understand deep SOM dynamics and to include them into soil C models, quantitative information about C fluxes resulting from C input, stabilization and destabilization processes at the field scale are necessary.


Subsoil Organic matter Chemical composition Carbon stabilization