Biogeochemistry Letters


, Volume 113, Issue 1, pp 271-281

First online:

Empirical evidence that soil carbon formation from plant inputs is positively related to microbial growth

  • Mark A. BradfordAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University Email author 
  • , Ashley D. KeiserAffiliated withSchool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
  • , Christian A. DaviesAffiliated withOdum School of Ecology, University of Georgia
  • , Calley A. MersmannAffiliated withOdum School of Ecology, University of GeorgiaSchool of Public & Environmental Affairs, Indiana University
  • , Michael S. StricklandAffiliated withDepartment of Biological Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Plant-carbon inputs to soils in the form of dissolved sugars, organic acids and amino acids fuel much of heterotrophic microbial activity belowground. Initial residence times of these compounds in the soil solution are on the order of hours, with microbial uptake a primary removal mechanism. Through microbial biosynthesis, the dissolved compounds become dominant precursors for formation of stable soil organic carbon. How the chemical class (e.g. sugar) of a dissolved compound influences stabilization in field soils is unknown and predictions from our understanding of microbial metabolism, turnover and identity are contradictory. We show that soil carbon formation, from chronic amendments of dissolved compounds to fertilized and unfertilized grasslands, is 2.4-times greater from a sugar than an amino acid. Formation rates are negatively correlated with respiration rates of the compounds, and positively correlated with their recovery in microbial biomass. These relationships suggest that the efficiency of microbial growth on a compound is positively related to formation rates of soil organic carbon. Fertilization does not alter these findings, but together nitrogen and phosphorus additions reduce soil carbon formation. Our results highlight the need to consider both nutrient enrichment and global-change induced shifts in the form of dissolved root inputs to soils to predict future soil carbon stocks and hence phenomena such as climate warming and food security to which these stock sizes are intimately tied.


Soil organic carbon Soil carbon formation Microbial biomass Root exudation Low molecular weight carbon compounds Dissolved organic carbon