U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Soil Moisture Mediates the Effects of Heating, Roots, and Depth on Root Litter Decomposition
Published: December 27, 2017
Posted: June 22, 2018

The Science
To explore the effects of soil depth, warming (+4 deg. C), and roots on the breakdown and decomposition of plant inputs, we followed the fate of isotopically labeled root litter in a Mediterranean grassland ecosystem. A team from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (1) manipulated soil temperature, presence of plants, and depth of inputs, (2) monitored resulting soil temperature and moisture, and (3) measured litter remaining after one and two growing seasons.

The Impact
In this Mediterranean grassland, season, depth, heating, and rhizosphere, all influenced soil moisture, which, in turn, overwhelmingly explained root litter decomposition. In moisture-limited ecosystems such as this one, warming may retard, rather than stimulate, microbial decomposition of soil organic carbon. 

In a Northern California grassland, plots were subjected to three environmental treatments (heating, control, and plant removal), with 13C-labeled root litter buried in either the A horizon (shallow) or B horizon (deep). At the end of each growing season the 13C remaining in the soil was recovered. In the first growing season, decomposition occurred faster in the B than in the A horizon, the latter having greater moisture limitation. Subsequently, there was almost no further decomposition in the B horizon. After two growing seasons, less than 20% of the added root litter C remained in the A or B horizons of all environmental treatments. Heating did not stimulate decomposition, likely because it exacerbated the moisture limitation. However, while plots without plants dried down more slowly than plots with plants, their decomposition rate was not significantly greater, possibly due to the lack of priming by root exudates.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover

(PI Contact)
Margaret Torn
LBNL, UC Berkeley

This research was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, Terrestrial Ecosystem Science Program, under Award Number DE-AC02-05CH11231, and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (#31622013).

Castanha, C., B. Zhu, C. E. H. Pries, K. Georgiou, and M. S. Torn. “The effects of heating, rhizosphere, and depth on root litter decomposition are mediated by soil moisture.” Biogeochemistry, 137(1-2), 267-279 (2018). [DOI:10.1007/s10533-017-0418-6]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Terrestrial Ecosystem Science

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


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