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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2011

Variations in microbial isotopic fractionation during soil organic matter decomposition

Lerch, Thomas; Nunan, Naoise; Dignac, Marie-France; Chenu, Claire; Mariotti, Andre


The soil microbial biomass (SMB) is known to participate in key soil processes such as the decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM). However, its contribution to the isotopic composition of the SOM is not clear yet. Shifts in the (13)C and (15)N natural abundances of the SMB and SOM fractions (mineralised, water soluble and non-extractable) were investigated by incubating an unamended arable soil for 6 months. Microbial communities were also studied using Fatty Acid Methyl Ester specific isotope analysis. The SMB was significantly (13)C and (15)N-enriched relative to other fractions throughout the incubation. However, significant isotopic variations with time were also observed due to the rapid consumption of relatively (13)C-enriched water soluble compounds. The increase in the difference in SMB and water soluble (15)N compositions as the water soluble C/N ratio decreased, indicated a shift from N assimilation to N dissimilation during the incubation. These changes also induced modifications of the microbial community structure. Once the system reached a steady-state (after 1 month), the isotopic trends appeared to corroborate those obtained in long term experiments in the field in that there was a constant microbial isotopic fractionation leading to a (13)C and (15)N enrichment of the SOM over the long-term. This work also suggests that caution must be exercised when interpreting short term incubation studies since perturbations associated with experimental set-up can have an important effect on C and N dynamics, microbial fractionation of (13)C and (15)N and microbial community structure.


(13)C; (15)N; Isotope fractionation; Soil organic matter; Microbial community

Published in

2011, Volume: 106, number: 1, pages: 5-21
Publisher: SPRINGER

    SLU Authors

      UKÄ Subject classification

      Environmental Sciences related to Agriculture and Land-use

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