, Volume 128, Issue 1–2, pp 107–123 | Cite as

An integrated spectroscopic and wet chemical approach to investigate grass litter decomposition chemistry

  • Georgina A. McKeeEmail author
  • Jennifer L. Soong
  • Francisco Caldéron
  • Thomas Borch
  • M. Francesca Cotrufo


The chemical transformations that occur during litter decomposition are key processes for soil organic matter formation and terrestrial biogeochemistry; yet we still lack complete understanding of these chemical processes. Thus, we monitored the chemical composition of Andropogon gerardii (big bluestem grass) litter residue over a 36 month decomposition experiment in a prairie ecosystem using: traditional wet chemical fractionation based upon digestibility, solid state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy and Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy. The goals of this study were to (1) determine the chemical changes occurring during A. gerardii litter decomposition, and (2) compare the information obtained from each method to assess agreement. Overall, we observed a 97 % mass loss of the original litter, through a two-stage decomposition process. In the first stage, within 12 months, non-structural, cellulose and hemicellulose fractions not encrusted in lignin were preferentially and rapidly lost, while the acid unhydrolyzable residue (AUR) and microbial components increased. During the second stage, 12–36 months, all wet chemical fraction masses decreased equivalently and slowly with time, and the AUR and the lignin-encrusted cellulose fractions decomposition rates were comparable to each other. Method comparisons revealed that wet chemical fractionation did not accurately follow the initial litter structures, particularly lignin, likely because of chemical transformations and accumulation of microbial biomass. FTIR and NMR were able to determine bulk structural characteristics, and aid in elucidating chemical transformations but lacked the ability to measure absolute quantities of structural groups. As a result, we warn from the sole use of wet chemical methods, and strongly encourage coupling them with spectroscopic methods. Our results overall support the traditional chemical model of selective preservation of lignin, but shows that this is limited to the early stages of decomposition, while lignin is not selectively preserved at subsequent stages. Our study also provides important evidence regarding the impact of chemically different litter structures on decomposition rates and pathways.


Litter decomposition Cellulose Hemicellulose Lignin NMR FTIR Grass Big bluestem 



We would like to thank the Konza Prairie LTER and EcoCore laboratories for their support and use of their facilities. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF)—Division of Environmental Biology grant #0918482, the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program, the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agriculture and Food Research Initiative postdoctoral fellowship grant # 2012-01330, and the Cotrufo-Hoppess fund for soil ecology research. The wet chemical work was carried out at the EcoCore analytical services facility at Colorado State University ( with the help of Dr Liping Qiu. A portion of the research was performed using EMSL, a DOE Office of Science User Facility sponsored by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research and located at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. We would like to thank the scientists at EMSL who assisted in running the NMR samples, particularly Dr. Sarah Burton.


The use of trade, firm, or corporation names is for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does not constitute an official endorsement or approval by the United States Department of Agriculture or the Agricultural Research Service of any product or service to the exclusion of others that may be suitable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits discrimination in all its programs and activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, and where applicable, sex, marital status, familial status, parental status, religion, sexual orientation, genetic information, political beliefs, reprisal, or because all or part of an individual’s income is derived from any public assistance program.

Supplementary material

10533_2016_197_MOESM1_ESM.eps (288 kb)
Supplementary Fig. 1 Cellulose/Lignin (AUR) ratio plots. a. NMR integration ratio (C2, C3, C5 cellulose 67–80 ppm/methoxy of lignin 46–59 ppm) from 0–24 months, b. wet chemistry ratio for stage 1 0–12 months, and c. wet chemistry ratio for stage 2 12–24 months (EPS 289 kb)
10533_2016_197_MOESM2_ESM.docx (15 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 16 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Georgina A. McKee
    • 1
    Email author
  • Jennifer L. Soong
    • 2
    • 5
  • Francisco Caldéron
    • 3
  • Thomas Borch
    • 1
    • 4
  • M. Francesca Cotrufo
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Soil and Crop SciencesColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  2. 2.Natural Resource Ecology LaboratoryColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  3. 3.Agricultural Research ServiceUnited States Department of AgricultureAkronUSA
  4. 4.Department of ChemistryColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpWilrijkBelgium

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