Recovery and dynamics of decomposing plant residue in soil: an evaluation of three fractionation methods based on size and density.

Diochon, A., Gillespie, A.W., Ellert, B.H., Janzen, H.H., and Gregorich, E.G. (2016). "Recovery and dynamics of decomposing plant residue in soil: an evaluation of three fractionation methods based on size and density.", European Journal of Soil Science. doi : 10.1111/ejss.12316  Access to full text


Our goals in this study were to track the incorporation of plant residue into soil organic matter (SOM) and test the effectiveness of different fractionation methods to evaluate this transformation. We incubated soil amended with 13C-labelled barley (Hordeum vulgare L.) residue and used three fractionation methods based on size (> 250, 53–250, 5–53 and < 5 µm) and density (< 1.7 g cm-3, i.e. light fraction (LF)) and determined its quantity and the rate of C loss or gain or both in these fractions as decomposition progressed. One method was based on size only, another involved density separation followed by size fractionation and a third separated organic matter fractions by size first and then by density. There were significant quantitative differences between the methods for the amount of residue in the fractions, but there was no effect of fractionation method on the rate of change in the residue that comprised the fractions. The density method did not appear to identify all of the most recently added (i.e. least decomposed) residue in the LF or that there was a redistribution of SOM among the fractions. The amount of residue C and the C:N ratio of the residue in the two smallest fractions increased early during the incubation (0–2 months), but subsequently decreased towards the end. The initially small C:N ratio in the clay fraction probably reflects the accumulation of microbial by-products from the rapid decomposition of water-soluble compounds. The subsequent increase and decrease in both residue C and C:N ratio reflects the balance of the accumulation of sorbed water-soluble compounds and dense plant residue fragments and their mineralization over time. We conclude that clay is a sink for residue C (i.e. microbial metabolites) early during decomposition, and that there is a transfer among fractions and mineralization of residue C as decomposition proceeds. These findings indicate that the clay fraction contains a dynamic pool of C that can cycle within short time-scales.

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