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

BER Research Highlights

Teasing Out Molecular Details of Arctic Soil Organic Carbon Degradation under Warming
Published: March 23, 2018
Posted: July 02, 2018

Pinpointing how fast different organic carbon molecules degrade under warming scenarios.

The Science
The breakdown of organic matter in soils is a critical factor in the release of carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide and methane. Scientists have gained new understanding of how soil organic carbon degrades at the molecular scale in the warming soil of the Arctic tundra. Using ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry techniques, ORNL and EMSL collaborators found certain molecular components are disproportionately more susceptible to microbial degradation than others. The researchers developed a biodegradation index to facilitate incorporating these findings into detailed carbon cycle models.

The Impact
Arctic soils contain significant stores of carbon. Integrating new knowledge about the biodegradation of organic matter in these soils into detailed models can improve predictions of global carbon cycling and climate feedbacks.

Understanding how different organic molecules are degraded in the soil is essential for predicting how greenhouse gas fluxes may respond to global climate change. The rate of microbial soil organic carbon (SOC) degradation is controlled not only by temperature but also by substrate composition. Using ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a DOE Office of Science User Facility, a team of scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oakland University, and EMSL determined the susceptibility and compositional changes of dissolved organic carbon in a warming experiment at -2 or 8°C with a tundra soil from the Barrow Environmental Observatory in northern Alaska. Based on their chemical compositions, organic carbon molecular formulas were grouped into nine classes, among which lignin-like compounds dominated both the organic and mineral soils and were the most stable. Organic components such as amino sugars, peptides and carbohydrate-like compounds were disproportionately more susceptible to microbial degradation than others in tundra soil. The findings suggest that biochemical composition is one of the key factors controlling SOC degradation in Arctic soils and should be considered in global carbon degradation models to improve predictions of Arctic climate feedbacks.

Contacts (BER PM)
Daniel Stover and Paul Bayer
Daniel.Stover@science.doe.gov and Paul.Bayer@science.doe.gov  

(PI Contact)
Baohua Gu
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

The Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE Arctic) project is supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science.

Chen, H.M., Z. Yang, R.K. Chu, N. Tolic, L. Liang, D.E. Graham, S.D. Wullschleger, and B. Gu. “Molecular insights into Arctic soil organic matter degradation under warming.” Environmental Science & Technology 52 (8) 4555-4564(2018). [DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b05469]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Carbon Cycle, Nutrient Cycling
  • Research Area: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL)
  • Research Area: Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiments (NGEE)

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


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