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Moving beyond mass loss: advancing understanding about the fate of decomposing leaf litter and pyrogenic organic matter in the mineral soil




Soong, Jennifer L., author
Cotrufo, M. Francesca, advisor
Wallenstein, Matthew, committee member
Knapp, Alan, committee member
Parton, William, committee member

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Leaf litter decomposition recycles the energy and nutrients fixed by plants during net primary productivity back to the soil and atmosphere from where they came. Traditionally, leaf litter decomposition studies have focused on litter mass loss rates, without consideration for where that mass ends up in the ecosystem. However, during litter decomposition by soil microbes a fraction of the litter mass lost is truly lost to the ecosystem as respired CO2, while another fraction remains in the ecosystem stored in the soil as soil organic matter (SOM). SOM is heterogeneous in composition, with various SOM pools remaining stored in the soil for time spans ranging from days to millennia depending on their biochemical and physical properties. Pyrogenic organic matter (py-OM) is the partially combusted plant residue left behind by fires, and has been found to contribute to long term SOM pools. SOM accounts for the largest terrestrial pool of carbon (C) in the global C cycle and stores nitrogen (N) and other nutrients for plant productivity. Therefore the formation of SOM during litter decomposition is critical to terrestrial C and N cycling and its feedback to global biogeochemical cycles. The focus of my dissertation is the study of leaf litter and py-OM decomposition, and quantitatively tracing how much decomposing litter and py-OM is used by soil microbes, how much is lost as CO2, and how much remains in the soil and contributes to SOM formation under different conditions. In order to best address my research questions, I first studied the methods of leaching of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and 13C and 15N isotope labeling of plant material in the laboratory. Then, I conducted a laboratory incubation where I found that the amount of hot water extractable C and the lignocellulose index (Lignin/(lignin+cellulose)) can be used to predict DOM leaching, and the partitioning of C loss between DOC and CO2 from leaves and py-OM during decomposition. I also conducted two field studies using 13C and 15N labeled Andropogon gerardii leaf litter and py-OM to trace the fate of C and N losses during their decomposition in a fire affected tallgrass prairie, and understand the role of soil microarthropods in this process. I found that soil microarthropods increase the amount of leaf litter C that contributes to stabilized SOM formation during litter decomposition, by increasing litter inputs to the soil where they can be utilized by soil microbes. Finally, I found that frequent inputs of py-OM, rather than litter, due to annual burning of the tallgrass prairie alters the SOM formation process by removing relatively labile litter inputs to the soil and replacing it with py-OM that is unusable by soil microbes. Overall, my dissertation has focused on taking a mechanistic approach to understanding the process of litter and py-OM decomposition, and how their decomposition contributes to SOM formation and ecosystem CO2 fluxes. My results have helped to improve our understanding of terrestrial biogeochemistry, and the processes that control SOM formation during litter decomposition.


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pyrogenic organic matter
soil respiration
soil ecology
dissolved organic matter
litter decomposition
microbial ecology


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