Vertical variations in plant- and microbial-derived carbon components in grassland soils

  • Tian Ma
  • Guohua Dai
  • Shanshan Zhu
  • Dima Chen
  • Litong Chen
  • Xiaotao Lü
  • Xiaobo Wang
  • Juntao Zhu
  • Yangjian Zhang
  • Jin-Sheng He
  • Yongfei Bai
  • Xingguo Han
  • Xiaojuan FengEmail author
Regular Article



Owing to different soil environments and organic carbon sources, soil organic carbon (SOC) composition and preservation mechanisms may vary substantially in deep versus surface soils. This study examines vertical variation of various SOC components (including lignin phenols, cutin, suberin and microbial lipids) across the Chinese-Mongolian grasslands.


Lignin phenols and hydrolysable lipids were isolated by cupric oxide oxidation and alkaline hydrolysis, respectively. A comprehensive list of environmental variables was compiled to disentangle influencing factors for the variation of various components at four different depths.


Lignin phenols, suberin and microbial lipids were most abundant in the surface soil (0–10 cm). Ratios of cutin to suberin and microbial lipids to lignin phenols (in the alpine grasslands) were higher in the bottom-most soil. Calcium (Ca) rather than iron (Fe) plays an important role in the preservation of cutin and microbial lipids in the bottom soil with a high Ca:Fe ratio and high pH. The incorporation efficiency of suberin was higher in deeper than surface soils and showed an increasing trend with depth in the alpine (but not temperate) grasslands.


Compared to surface soils, the incorporation of root-derived carbon into SOC is more efficient in deeper soils due to stronger mineral protection and weaker microbial decomposition. Root-derived carbon is more important for SOC accrual in the alpine than temperate grasslands, especially at depth. These findings reveal differential distribution patterns and preservation mechanisms for SOC components in the surface versus deep soils, providing new information to understand SOC stability at different depths.


Deep soils Distribution patterns Preservation mechanisms Soil organic carbon Chinese-Mongolian grasslands 



This study was funded by the Strategic Priority Research Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. XDA19050403), the Chinese National Key Development Program for Basic Research (2015CB954201), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (41773067, 31971502) and the CAS Interdisciplinary Innovation Team (JCTD-2018-06). The original data are available from the supplementary information. The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.

Supplementary material

11104_2019_4371_MOESM1_ESM.docx (798 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 798 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tian Ma
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Guohua Dai
    • 1
  • Shanshan Zhu
    • 1
    • 2
  • Dima Chen
    • 1
  • Litong Chen
    • 4
  • Xiaotao Lü
    • 5
  • Xiaobo Wang
    • 5
  • Juntao Zhu
    • 6
  • Yangjian Zhang
    • 2
    • 6
  • Jin-Sheng He
    • 3
    • 7
  • Yongfei Bai
    • 1
    • 2
  • Xingguo Han
    • 1
    • 2
  • Xiaojuan Feng
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.State Key Laboratory of Vegetation and Environmental Change, Institute of BotanyChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.College of Resources and EnvironmentUniversity of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  3. 3.State Key Laboratory of Grassland and Agro-ecosystems, College of Pastoral Agriculture Science and TechnologyLanzhou UniversityLanzhouChina
  4. 4.Key Laboratory of Adaptation and Evolution of Plateau Biota, Northwest Institute of Plateau BiologyChinese Academy of SciencesXiningChina
  5. 5.Institute of Applied EcologyChinese Academy of SciencesShenyangChina
  6. 6.Key Laboratory of Ecosystem Network Observation and Modeling, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources ResearchChinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  7. 7.Department of Ecology, College of Urban and Environmental SciencesPeking UniversityBeijingChina

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