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Doctoral thesis, 2016

Decomposition of soil organic matter under a changing climate : a matter of efficiency?

Bölscher, Tobias


Soil organic matter is the largest carbon (C) pool in the terrestrial C cycle, and soil CO₂ emissions surpass anthropogenic emissions from fossil fuel combustion by a factor of nine. Therefore, mechanisms controlling C stabilisation in soils and its feedback to climate change are widely debated. During decomposition, microbial substrate-use efficiency is an important property because it determines the allocation of substrate C to biosynthesis and respiratory losses. High efficiency values indicate that C primarily remains in soils while low efficiency implies that C is primarily lost into the atmosphere. Despite empirical evidence that efficiency is temperature sensitive, traditional Earth system models treat this property as a constant. The aim of this thesis was to improve our mechanistic understanding of drivers regulating substrate-use efficiency with special consideration to climate change. It investigated the impacts of (i) temperature, (ii) microbial community composition and (iii) substrate quality on substrate-use efficiency. Within the thesis, a microbial energetics approach was applied and further developed using isothermal calorimetry. Further, the thesis compared common approaches for measuring microbial substrate-use efficiency, and the implications of the resultant empirical data for projected C stocks were tested using a modelling approach. Substrate-use efficiency was generally temperature sensitive and decreased with increasing temperature. The observed temperature responses were non-linear and varied across land use management systems. The changes in substrate-use efficiency with temperature were driven rather by changes in microbial physiology than by shifts in active microbial communities. Nevertheless, fungi and Gram-negative bacteria tended towards relatively higher efficiencies. Efficiencies varied among utilised substrates, but substrate quality per se was a poor proxy for efficiency. Projected losses from soil C stocks varied across land use management systems and were up to 39 % and 15 % for grassland and forest systems, respectively. Results from the modelling approach confirmed that substrate-use efficiency is one of the factors to which soil C stocks react most sensitively. Findings from this thesis emphasise the importance of furthering our understanding of substrate-use efficiency for reliable climate projections.


soil organic matter; substrate-use efficiency; temperature; land use; microbial community; substrate quality; isothermal calorimetry; carbon modelling

Published in

Acta Universitatis Agriculturae Sueciae
2016, number: 2016:85
ISBN: 978-91-576-8672-5, eISBN: 978-91-576-8673-2
Publisher: Department of Chemistry and Biotechnology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Soil Science
    Climate Research

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