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Biological mechanisms may contribute to soil carbon saturation patterns...

by Matthew E Craig, Melanie A Mayes, Benjamin N Sulman, Anthony P Walker
Publication Type
Journal Name
Global Change Biology
Publication Date
Page Numbers
2633 to 2644

Increasing soil organic carbon (SOC) storage is a key strategy to mitigate rising atmospheric CO2, yet SOC pools often appear to saturate, or increase at a declining rate, as carbon (C) inputs increase. Soil C saturation is commonly hypothesized to result from the finite amount of reactive mineral surface area available for retaining SOC, and is accordingly represented in SOC models as a physicochemically determined SOC upper limit. However, mineral-associated SOC is largely microbially generated. In this perspective, we present the hypothesis that apparent SOC saturation patterns could emerge as a result of ecological constraints on microbial biomass—for example, via competition or predation—leading to reduced C flow through microbes and a reduced rate of mineral-associated SOC formation as soil C inputs increase. Microbially explicit SOC models offer an opportunity to explore this hypothesis, yet most of these models predict linear microbial biomass increases with C inputs and insensitivity of SOC to input rates. Synthesis of 54 C addition studies revealed constraints on microbial biomass as C inputs increase. Different hypotheses limiting microbial density were embedded in a three-pool SOC model without explicit limits on mineral surface area. As inputs increased, the model demonstrated either no change, linear, or apparently saturating increases in mineral-associated and particulate SOC pools. Taken together, our results suggest that microbial constraints are common and could lead to reduced mineral-associated SOC formation as input rates increase. We conclude that SOC responses to altered C inputs—or any environmental change—are influenced by the ecological factors that limit microbial populations, allowing for a wider range of potential SOC responses to stimuli. Understanding how biotic versus abiotic factors contribute to these patterns will better enable us to predict and manage soil C dynamics.