Kallenbach, C. M., A. S. Grandy, S. D. Frey, and A. F. Diefendorf. 2015. Microbial physiology and necromass regulate agricultural soil carbon accumulation. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 91:279-290.
Strategies for mitigating soil organic carbon (SOC) losses in intensively managed agricultural systems typically draw from traditional concepts of soil organic matter formation, and thus emphasize increasing C inputs, especially from slowly decomposing crop residues, and reducing soil disturbance. However these approaches are often ineffective and do not adequately reflect current views of SOC cycling, which stress the important contributions of microbial biomass (MB) inputs to SOC. We examined microbial physiology as an alternate mechanism of SOC accumulation under organic (ORG) compared to conventional (CT) agricultural management practices, where ORG is accumulating C despite fewer total C inputs and greater soil tillage. We hypothesized that microbial communities in ORG have higher growth rates (MGR) and C use efficiencies (CUE) and that this relates to greater MB production and ultimately higher retention of new C inputs. We show that ORG had 50% higher CUE (±8 se) and 56% higher MGR (±22 se) relative to CT (p < 0.05). From in situ 13C substrate additions, we show that higher CUE and MGR are associated with greater rates and amounts of 13C glucose and phenol assimilation into MBC and mineral-associated SOC pools in ORG up to 6 mo after field substrate additions (p < 0.05). ORG soils were also enriched in proteins and lipids and had lower abundances of aromatic compounds and plant lipids (p < 0.05). These results illustrate a new mechanism for SOC accumulation under reduced C inputs and intensive soil disturbance and demonstrate that agricultural systems that facilitate the transformation of plant C into MB may be an effective, often overlooked strategy for building SOC in agricultural soils.
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