Diverse organic carbon dynamics captured by radiocarbon analysis of distinct compound classes in a grassland soil
Abstract. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is a large, dynamic reservoir composed of a complex mixture of plant and microbe derived compounds with a wide distribution of cycling timescales and mechanisms. The distinct residence times of individual C components within this reservoir depend on a combination of factors, including compound reactivity, mineral association, and climate conditions. To better constrain SOC dynamics, bulk radiocarbon measurements are commonly used to trace biosphere inputs into soils and estimate timescales of SOC cycling. However, understanding the mechanisms driving the persistence of organic compounds in bulk soil requires analyses of SOC pools that can be linked to plant sources and microbial transformation processes. Here, we adapt approaches, previously developed for marine sediments, to isolate organic compound classes from soils for radiocarbon (14C) analysis. We apply these methods to a soil profile from an annual grassland in Hopland, California (USA) to assess changes in SOC persistence with depth to 1 m. We measured the radiocarbon values of water extractable organic carbon (WEOC), total lipid extracts (TLE), total hydrolysable amino acids (AA), and an acid-insoluble (AI) fraction from bulk and physically separated size fractions (<2 mm, 2 mm–63 μm, and <63 μm). Our results show that Δ14C values of bulk soil, size fractions, and extracted compound classes became more depleted with depth, and individual SOC components have distinct age-depth distributions that suggest distinguishable cycling rates. We found that AA and TLE cycle faster than the bulk soils and the AI fraction. The AI was the most 14C depleted fraction, indicating it is the most chemically inert in this soil. Our approach enables the isolation and measurement of SOC fractions that separate functionally distinct SOC pools that can cycle relatively quickly (e.g., plant and microbial residues) from more passive or inert SOC pools (associated with minerals or petrogenic) from bulk soils and soil physical fractions. With the effort to move beyond SOC bulk analysis, we find that compound class 14C analysis can improve our understanding of SOC cycling and disentangle the physical and chemical factors driving OC cycling rates and persistence.
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