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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2023

Recently fixed carbon fuels microbial activity several meters below the soilsurface

Scheibe, Andrea; Sierra, Carlos A. A.; Spohn, Marie


The deep soil, > 1 m, harbors a substantial share of the global microbial biomass. Currently, it is not known whether microbial activity several meters below the surface is fueled by recently fixed carbon or by old carbon that persisted in soil for several hundred years. Understanding the carbon source of microbial activity in deep soil is important to identify the drivers of biotic processes in the critical zone. Therefore, we explored carbon cycling in soils in three climate zones (arid, mediterranean, and humid) of the Coastal Cordillera of Chile down to a depth of 6 m, using carbon isotopes. Specifically, we determined the C-13 :C- 12 ratio (delta C-13) of soil and roots and the C-14 : C-12 ratio (delta C-14) of soil organic carbon and CO2-C respired by microorganisms. We found that the delta C-14 of the respired CO2-C was significantly higher than that of the soil organic carbon in all soils. Further, we found that the delta C-13 of the soil organic carbon changed only in the upper decimeters (by less than 6 parts per thousand ). Our results show that microbial activity several meters below the soil surface is mostly fueled by recently fixed carbon that is on average much younger than the total soil organic carbon present in the respective soil depth increments, in all three climate zones. Further, our results indicate that most decomposition that leads to enrichment of C-13 occurs in the upper decimeters of the soils, which is possibly due to stabilization of organic carbon in the deep soil. In conclusion, our study demonstrates that microbial processes in the deep soil several meters below the surface are closely tied to input of recently fixed carbon.

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2023, Volume: 20, number: 4, pages: 827-838

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