Evaluating biodegradability of soil organic matter by its thermal stability and chemical composition


Gregorich, E.G., Gillespie, A.W., Beare, M.H., Curtin, D., Sanei, H., Yanni, S.F. (2015). Evaluating biodegradability of soil organic matter by its thermal stability and chemical composition. Soil Biology & Biochemistry, [online] 91 182-191. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2015.08.032


The stability of soil organic matter (SOM) as it relates to resistance to microbial degradation has important implications for nutrient cycling, emission of greenhouse gases, and C sequestration. Hence, there is interest in developing new ways to quantify and characterise the labile and stable forms of SOM. Our objective in this study was to evaluate SOM under widely contrasting management regimes to determine whether the variation in chemical composition and resistance to pyrolysis observed for various constituent C fractions could be related to their resistance to decomposition. Samples from the same soil under permanent pasture, an arable cropping rotation, and chemical fallow were physically fractionated (sand: 2000-50 μm; silt: 50-5 μm, and clay: <5 μm). Biodegradability of the SOM in size fractions and whole soils was assessed in a laboratory mineralization study. Thermal stability was determined by analytical pyrolysis using a Rock-Eval pyrolyser, and chemical composition was characterized by X-ray absorption near-edge structure (XANES) spectroscopy at the C and N K-edges. Relative to the pasture soil, SOM in the arable and fallow soils declined by 30% and 40%, respectively. The mineralization bioassay showed that SOM in whole soil and soil fractions under fallow was less susceptible to biodegradation than that in other management practices. The SOM in the sand fraction was significantly more biodegradable than that in the silt or clay fractions. Analysis by XANES showed a proportional increase in carboxylates and a reduction in amides (protein) and aromatics in the fallow whole soil compared to the pasture and arable soils. Moreover, protein depletion was greatest in the sand fraction of the fallow soil. Sand fractions in fallow and arable soils were, however, relatively enriched in plant-derived phenols, aromatics, and carboxylates compared to the sand fraction of pasture soils. Analytical pyrolysis showed distinct differences in the thermal stability of SOM among the whole soil and their size fractions; it also showed that the loss of SOM generally involved preferential degradation of H-rich compounds. The temperature at which half of the C was pyrolyzed was strongly correlated with mineralizable C, providing good evidence for a link between the biological and thermal stability of SOM.

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