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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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Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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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Contributions

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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Brian J. Spiesman.

Additional information

Communicated by Mercedes Bustamante.

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 256 kb)

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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). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-4036-8

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-017-4036-8

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