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The effects of soil structure on soil organic matter: a mechanistic approach




Even, Rebecca, author
Cotrufo, M. Francesca, advisor
Conant, Richard, committee member
Paustian, Keith, committee member

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Two key factors theorized to affect soil organic carbon (SOC) dynamics are type of plant carbon (C) inputs and soil structure (i.e., soil aggregation), both are influenced by management practices and are considerably intertwined. Research surrounding these factors has increased in the last several decades as the threat of climate change has forced policy makers to find natural based solutions to rising CO2 levels in Earth's atmosphere. Given that soil acts as the largest terrestrial C pool but has lost substantial amounts of C due to land use change and unsustainable agriculture, focus has shifted towards identifying better ways to manage arable lands that improve SOC storage. Among the conventional management practices tillage is likely the most studied, because of its damage to soil structure, leading to soil C losses. However, while research centered on tillage effects on soil aggregation and SOC cycling is vast, few studies explore how plant C input type (i.e., soluble versus structural) and disturbance (i.e., tilling) together affects SOC in soils with different degrees of aggregation. We examined the effects of soil texture, disturbance, and plant input type on soil aggregation, C mineralization, and formation and persistence of plant input-derived SOC to better understand the mechanisms by which soil aggregates help form and protect SOC, specifically as particulate and mineral associated organic carbon (POC and MAOC). POC and MAOC are expected to be formed by distinct pathways, respectively from structural and soluble inputs. Because of their different mechanisms of protection, POC and MAOC are also expected to respond differently to plant inputs and management practices, like tilling, that disturb soil aggregates. We aimed to parse the formation and persistence of POC and MAOC by adding 13C labeled plant residue separated into soluble and structural plant constituents to determine how these physically distinct plant compounds contribute to either pool when soil is intact or disturbed. In an in-lab incubation using 13C enrichment, we traced SOC over the course of one year in a factorial design with four factors: soil type*disturbance*plant input*harvest. Our results showed, as expected, that hot-water extractable (HWE) plant inputs contributed substantially to MAOC while structural plant components (SPC) inputs preferentially formed POC. Interestingly, we found that disturbance resulted in less HWE mineralized to CO2 and more MAOC formation in the highly aggregated (HA) soil suggesting that increased mineral surface area caused more efficient dissolved OM sorption. Moreover, HWE-derived MAOC persisted in both the undisturbed (U) and disturbed (D) HA soils but not in low aggregation (LA) soils, indicating that persistence of MAOC is dependent on soil type and aggregation (i.e., soil physical structure). Although we did not observe significant differences in aggregate-occluded POC (oPOC) formation between HAD and LAD soils, we did see higher oPOC persistence in HAD soil compared to LAD soil. Greater accumulation oPOC in HAD from day 22 to the end of the incubation suggests, again, that soil type influences the persistence of POC through occlusion in aggregates. To corroborate this, we also found that LAD soil had the highest CO2 mineralization of SPC plant inputs as SPC was left more unprotected in the soil with a low capacity to aggregate. Disturbance did not affect microbial biomass in either HA or LA soils. We saw more plant-derived microbial biomass C from HWE inputs compared to SPC inputs in the bulk soil, indicating that HWE inputs are assimilated into microbial biomass, thus incorporated into SOC with higher efficiency. Lastly, there was a significant drop in % plant-derived microbial biomass C in the bulk soil overtime, as expected. However, because the % HWE-derived MAOC persisted in HA soils regardless of disturbance, we illustrated the importance of microbial necromass in addition to direct DOC sorption for SOC stabilization as MAOC. Overall, my study provides mechanistic understanding for the role of soil structure and aggregation on POC and MAOC formation and persistence which can help improve the representation of these processes in models, to provide better predictions of SOC changes with changes in management practices affecting disturbance.


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applied soil science
soil aggregation
soil organic matter
climate change
soil carbon


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