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Effects of root litter traits on soil organic matter dynamics depend on decay stage and root branching order...

by Katilyn Beidler, Michael Benson, Matthew E Craig, Young Oh, Richard P. Phillips
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Soil Biology and Biochemistry
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Decaying roots contribute disproportionately to soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks in many ecosystems, yet few studies have examined the afterlife effects of root trait variability on the formation, stability and mineralization of SOC. In order to assess how root functional class (absorptive vs. transport) and mycorrhizal association (ectomycorrhizal vs. arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi) affect both formation and loss of SOC, we decayed lower-order absorptive (orders 1–2) and higher-order transport (orders 3–4) roots from six arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) and six ectomycorrhizal (EcM) associated hardwood tree species in an isotopically distinct soil under laboratory conditions. We found that root litter effects on SOC differed significantly among root functional classes and mycorrhizal types. AM absorptive and transport roots (high in nitrogen and soluble compounds) contributed more to the formation of new mineral-associated organic carbon (MAOC), but also contributed to higher mineralization of native SOC (via priming effects). Moreover, absorptive AM roots formed MAOC gradually and rates saturated, whereas ECM roots formed MAOC more quickly, despite slower decay (via greater formation efficiency). Together, these findings demonstrate how different combinations of root traits might contribute to soil C balance, and that failure to account for the chemical and morphological heterogeneity of roots, as well their interactions with microbes over time, may lead to incorrect projections of SOC stocks and turnover.