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Soil organic matter status in forest ecosystems depends on the microbial transformation of tree species-specific inputs

  • Soils in forest ecosystems bear a high potential as carbon (C) sinks in the mitigation of climate change. The amount and characteristics of soil organic matter (SOM) are driven by inputs, transformation, degradation and stabilization of organic substances. While tree species fuel the C cycle by producing aboveground and belowground litter, soil microorganisms are crucial for litter degradation as well as the formation and stabilization of SOM. Nonetheless, our knowledge about the tree species effect on the SOM status is limited, inconsistent and blurred. The investigation of tree species effects on SOM is challenging because in long-established forest ecosystems the spatial distribution of tree species is a result of the interplay of environmental factors including climate, geomorphology and soil chemistry. Moreover, tree distribution can further vary with forest successional stage and silvicultural management. Since these factors also directly affect the soil C-status, it is difficult to identify a pure “tree species effect” on the SOM status at regular forested sites. It therefore remains unclear in how far tree species-specific litter with different quality influences the microbial driven turnover and formation of SOM. Tree species effects on SOM and related soil microbial properties were investigated by examining soil profiles (comprising organic forest floor horizons and mineral soil layers) in different forest stands at the recultivated spoil heap ‘Sophienhöhe’ located at the lignite open-cast mine Hambach near Jülich, Germany. The afforested sites comprised monocultural stands of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), black pine (Pinus nigra), European beech (Fagus sylvatica) and red oak (Quercus rubra) as well as a mixed deciduous stand site planted mainly with hornbeam (Carpinus betulus), lime (Tilia cordata) and common oak (Quercus robur) that were grown for 35 years under identical soil and geomorphological conditions. Because the parent material used for site recultivation was free from organic matter or coal material, the SOM accumulation is entirely the result of in situ soil development due to the impact of tree species. The first study revealed that tree species had a significant effect on soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks, stoichiometric patterns of C, nitrogen (N), sulfur (S), hydrogen (H) and oxygen (O) as well as the microbial biomass carbon (MBC) content in the forest floor and the top mineral soil layers (0-5 cm, 5-10 cm, 10-30 cm). In general, forest floor SOC stocks were significantly higher at coniferous forest stands compared to deciduous tree species, whereas in mineral soil layers the differences were smaller. Thus, the impact of tree species decreased with increasing soil depth. By investigating the linkage of the natural abundance of 13C and 15N in the soil depth gradients with C:N and O:C stoichiometry, the second study showed that differences in SOC stocks and SOM quality resulted from a tree species-dependent turnover of SOM. Significantly higher turnover of organic matter in soils under deciduous tree species depended to 46 % on the quality of litterfall and root inputs (N content, C:N, O:C ratio), and on the initial isotopic signatures of litterfall. Hence, SOM composition and turnover also depends on additional – presumably microbially driven – factors. The subsequent results of the third study revealed that differences in SOM composition and related soil microbial properties were linked to different microbial communities. Phospholipid fatty acid (PLFA) patterns in the soil profiles indicated that the supply and availability of C and nutrient-rich substrates drive the distribution of fungi, Gram-positive (G+) bacteria and Gram-negative (G−) bacteria between tree species and along the soil depth gradients. The fourth study investigated the molecular composition of extractable soil microbial biomass-derived (SMB) and SOM-derived compounds by electrospray ionization Fourier transformation ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (ESI-FT-ICR-MS). This was complemented by the analysis of nine monosaccharides representing microbial or plant origin. Microbially derived compounds substantially contributed to SOM and the contribution increased with soil depth. The supply of tree species-specific substrates resulted in different chemical composition of SMB with largest differences between deciduous and coniferous stands. At the same time, microorganisms contributed to SOM resulting in a strong similarity in the composition of SOM and SMB. Overall, the complex interplay of tree species-specific litter inputs and the ability, activity and efficiency of the associated soil fauna and microbial community in metabolizing the organic substrates leads to significant differences in the amount, distribution, quality and consequently, the stability of SOM. These findings are useful for a targeted cultivation of tree species to optimize soil C sequestration and other forest ecosystems services.

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Author:Marcel Lorenz
Referee:Sören Thiele-Bruhn, Willy Werner, Ingrid Kögel-Knabner
Advisor:Sören Thiele-Bruhn
Document Type:Doctoral Thesis
Date of completion:2021/05/18
Publishing institution:Universität Trier
Granting institution:Universität Trier, Fachbereich 6
Date of final exam:2021/05/04
Release Date:2021/06/09
GND Keyword:Baumart; Humus; Kohlendioxidsenke; Waldboden
Institutes:Fachbereich 6
Licence (German):License LogoCC BY-NC-ND: Creative-Commons-Lizenz 4.0 International

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