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Are oxygen limitations under recognized regulators of organic carbon turnover in upland soils?

Abstract

Understanding the processes controlling organic matter (OM) stocks in upland soils, and the ability to management them, is crucial for maintaining soil fertility and carbon (C) storage as well as projecting change with time. OM inputs are balanced by the mineralization (oxidation) rate, with the difference determining whether the system is aggrading, degrading or at equilibrium with reference to its C storage. In upland soils, it is well recognized that the rate and extent of OM mineralization is affected by climatic factors (particularly temperature and rainfall) in combination with OM chemistry, mineral–organic associations, and physical protection. Here we examine evidence for the existence of persistent anaerobic microsites in upland soils and their effect on microbially mediated OM mineralization rates. We corroborate long-standing assumptions that residence times of OM tend to be greater in soil domains with limited oxygen supply (aggregates or peds). Moreover, the particularly long residence times of reduced organic compounds (e.g., aliphatics) are consistent with thermodynamic constraints on their oxidation under anaerobic conditions. Incorporating (i) pore length and connectivity governing oxygen diffusion rates (and thus oxygen supply) with (ii) ‘hot spots’ of microbial OM decomposition (and thus oxygen consumption), and (iii) kinetic and thermodynamic constraints on OM metabolism under anaerobic conditions will thus improve conceptual and numerical models of C cycling in upland soils. We conclude that constraints on microbial metabolism induced by oxygen limitations act as a largely unrecognized and greatly underestimated control on overall rates of C oxidation in upland soils.

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Abbreviations

fanaerobic :

‘Anaerobic fraction’, anaerobic proportion of the overall pore space

roxygen :

Scaling factor that describes the effect of oxygen limitations on overall OM oxidation rates (ranges from 0 to 1)

Ft :

Thermodynamic driving force for the oxidation of a carbon compound coupled to the reduction of a given terminal electron acceptor. It varies from 0 (reaction inhibited) to 1 (reaction occurs at maximum rates) and can be estimated based on NOSC

NOSC:

Nominal oxidation state of carbon can be calculated for any given compound based on its stoichiometry (LaRowe and Van Cappellen 2011)

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Program (Award Number DE-FG02-13ER65542). We would also like to thank Patrick Megonigal and an anonymous reviewer for their help in improving this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Scott Fendorf.

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Responsible Editor: Dr. Sharon A. Billings.

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Keiluweit, M., Nico, P.S., Kleber, M. et al. Are oxygen limitations under recognized regulators of organic carbon turnover in upland soils?. Biogeochemistry 127, 157–171 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-015-0180-6

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-015-0180-6

Keywords

  • Soil carbon
  • Organic matter
  • Anaerobic metabolism
  • Soils
  • Oxygen limitations