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Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation

Abstract

Understanding the origin of the carbon (C) stabilised in soils is crucial in order to device management practices that will foster Caccumulation in soils. The relative contributions to soilC pools of roots vs. shoots is one aspect that has been mostly overlooked, although it appears a key factor that drives the fate of plant tissueC either as mineralized CO2 or as stabilized soil organic matter (SOM). Available studies on the subject consistently indicate that rootC has a longer residence time in soil than shootC. From the few studies with complete datasets, we estimated that the mean residence time in soils of root-derived C is 2.4times that of shoot-derived C. Our analyses indicate that this value is biased neither by an underestimation of root contributions, as exudation was considered in the analysis, nor by a priming effect of shoot litter on SOM. Here, we discuss the main SOM stabilisation mechanisms with respect to their ability to specifically protect root-derived SOM. Comparing in situ and incubation experiments suggests that the higher chemical recalcitrance of root tissues as compared to that of shoots is responsible for only a small portion, i.e. about one fourth, of the difference in mean residence time in soils of root-derived vs. shoot-derivedC. This suggests that SOM protection mechanisms other than chemical recalcitrance are also enhanced by root activities: (1)physico-chemical protection, especially in deeper horizons, (2)micrometer-scale physical protection through myccorhiza and root-hair activities, and (3)chemical interactions with metal ions. The impact of environmental conditions within deeper soil layers on rootC stabilisation appear difficult to assess, but is likely, if anything, to further increase the ratio between the mean residence time of root vs. shootC in soils. Future advances are expected from isotopic studies conducted at the molecular level, which will help unravel the fate of individual shoot and root compounds, such as cutins and suberins, throughout soil profiles.

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Rasse, D.P., Rumpel, C. & Dignac, MF. Is soil carbon mostly root carbon? Mechanisms for a specific stabilisation. Plant Soil 269, 341–356 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-004-0907-y

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Keywords

  • C sequestration
  • physico-chemical protection
  • rhizosphere
  • SOM
  • suberin