, Volume 111, Issue 1–3, pp 57–81 | Cite as

Shedding light on plant litter decomposition: advances, implications and new directions in understanding the role of photodegradation

  • Jennifer Y. KingEmail author
  • Leslie A. Brandt
  • E. Carol Adair
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


Litter decomposition contributes to one of the largest fluxes of carbon (C) in the terrestrial biosphere and is a primary control on nutrient cycling. The inability of models using climate and litter chemistry to predict decomposition in dry environments has stimulated investigation of non-traditional drivers of decomposition, including photodegradation, the abiotic decomposition of organic matter via exposure to solar radiation. Recent work in this developing field shows that photodegradation may substantially influence terrestrial C fluxes, including abiotic production of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane, especially in arid and semi-arid regions. Research has also produced contradictory results regarding controls on photodegradation. Here we summarize the state of knowledge about the role of photodegradation in litter decomposition and C cycling and investigate drivers of photodegradation across experiments using a meta-analysis. Overall, increasing litter exposure to solar radiation increased mass loss by 23% with large variation in photodegradation rates among and within ecosystems. This variation was tied to both litter and environmental characteristics. Photodegradation increased with litter C to nitrogen (N) ratio, but not with lignin content, suggesting that we do not yet fully understand the underlying mechanisms. Photodegradation also increased with factors that increased solar radiation exposure (latitude and litter area to mass ratio) and decreased with mean annual precipitation. The impact of photodegradation on C (and potentially N) cycling fundamentally reshapes our thinking of decomposition as a solely biological process and requires that we define the mechanisms driving photodegradation before we can accurately represent photodegradation in global C and N models.


UV-B Solar radiation Arid ecosystems Grasslands Carbon Nitrogen Lignin 



Thanks to R. Sinsabaugh, S. Hobbie, D. Milchunas, and Y. Lin for their helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. We appreciate the thorough and thoughtful comments provided by three anonymous reviewers. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF DEB 0542935 and 0935984).


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Copyright information

© US Government 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennifer Y. King
    • 1
    Email author
  • Leslie A. Brandt
    • 2
  • E. Carol Adair
    • 3
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  2. 2.Northern Institute of Applied Climate ScienceUSDA Forest ServiceSaint PaulUSA
  3. 3.National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS)University of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  4. 4.Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural ResourcesUniversity of VermontBurlingtonUSA

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