, Volume 85, Issue 1, pp 25–44 | Cite as

Role of proteins in soil carbon and nitrogen storage: controls on persistence

  • Matthias C. RilligEmail author
  • Bruce A. Caldwell
  • Han A. B. Wösten
  • Philip Sollins
Original Paper


Mechanisms of soil organic carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) stabilization are of great interest, due to the potential for increased CO2 release from soil organic matter (SOM) to the atmosphere as a result of global warming, and because of the critical role of soil organic N in controlling plant productivity. Soil proteins are recognized increasingly as playing major roles in stabilization and destabilization of soil organic C and N. Two categories of proteins are proposed: detrital proteins that are released upon cell death and functional proteins that are actively released into the soil to fulfill specific functions. The latter include microbial surface-active proteins (e.g., hydrophobins, chaplins, SC15, glomalin), many of which have structures that promote their persistence in the soil, and extracellular enzymes, responsible for many decomposition and nutrient cycling transformations. Here we review information on the nature of soil proteins, particularly those of microbial origin, and on the factors that control protein persistence and turnover in the soil. We discuss first the intrinsic properties of the protein molecule that affect its stability, next possible extrinsic stabilizing influences that arise as the proteins interact with other soil constituents, and lastly controls on accessibility of proteins at coarser spatial scales involving microbial cells, clay particles, and soil aggregates. We conclude that research at the interface between soil science and microbial physiology will yield rapid advances in our understanding of soil proteins. We suggest as research priorities determining the relative abundance and turnover time (age) of microbial versus plant proteins and of functional microbial proteins, including surface-active compounds.


Hydrophobins Glomalin-related soil protein Carbon storage Soil organic nitrogen Soil microbial protein Extracellular enzymes 



Funding for the Asilomar Conference on Mechanisms of SOM Stabilization, which brought the authors together for the first time, was provided by NSF, USDA-NRI, Kearney Foundation of Soil Science, Livermore National Laboratory, NASA, and the Forest Science Department, Oregon State University. MCR, BAC and PS acknowledge funding by the NSF Ecosystem Studies program and USDA NRI CSREES. We thank Dr. D. Mummey for comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Matthias C. Rillig
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Bruce A. Caldwell
    • 3
  • Han A. B. Wösten
    • 4
  • Philip Sollins
    • 3
  1. 1.Institut für BiologieFreie Universität BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Microbial Ecology Program, Division of Biological SciencesUniversity of MontanaMissoulaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Forest ScienceOregon State UniversityCorvallisUSA
  4. 4.Microbiologie, H.R. KruytgebouwUniversiteit UtrechtUtrechtThe Netherlands

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