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Carbon storage potential increases with increasing ratio of C4 to C3 grass cover and soil productivity in restored tallgrass prairies

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Long-term soil carbon (C) storage is essential for reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Converting unproductive and environmentally sensitive agricultural lands to grasslands for bioenergy production may enhance C storage. However, a better understanding of the interacting effects of grass functional composition (i.e., relative abundance of C4 and C3 grass cover) and soil productivity on C storage will help guide sustainable grassland management. Our objective was to examine the relationship between grass functional composition and potential C storage and how it varies with potential soil productivity. We estimated C inputs from above- and belowground net primary productivity (ANPP and BNPP), and heterotrophic respiration (R H) to calculate net ecosystem production (NEP), a measure of potential soil C storage, in grassland plots of relatively high- and low-productivity soils spanning a gradient in the ratio of C4 to C3 grass cover (C4:C3). NEP increased with increasing C4:C3, but only in potentially productive soils. The positive relationship likely stemmed from increased ANPP, rather than BNPP, which was possibly related to efficient resource-use and physiological/anatomical advantages of C4 plants. R H was negatively correlated with C4:C3, possibly because of changes in microclimate or plant–microbe interactions. It is possible that in potentially productive soils, C storage can be enhanced by favoring C4 over C3 grasses through increased ANPP and BNPP and reduced R H. Results also suggest that potential C storage gains from C4 productivity would not be undermined by a corresponding increase in R H.

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We thank Gary Oates, Adam von Haden, and members of the Jackson lab for insightful discussions of our study. This work was funded by the DOE-Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (DOE Office of Science BER DE-FC02-07ER64494) and a USDA North Central Region-Sustainable Agriculture, Research & Education graduate student award to HK.

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HK and RDJ conceived and designed the study. HK performed the field and lab work. BJS analyzed the data. BJS wrote the manuscript with input and edits from HK and RDJ.

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Correspondence to Brian J. Spiesman.

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Communicated by Mercedes Bustamante.

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Spiesman, B.J., Kummel, H. & Jackson, R.D. Carbon storage potential increases with increasing ratio of C4 to C3 grass cover and soil productivity in restored tallgrass prairies. Oecologia 186, 565–576 (2018).

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