Plant roots stimulate the decomposition of complex, but not simple, soil carbon
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Plant roots stimulate the decomposition of complex, but not simple, soil carbon

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  • Journal Title:
    Functional Ecology
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    Roots release carbon into soil and can alleviate energy limitation of microbial organic matter decomposition. We know little about the effects of roots on microbial decomposition of different organic matter substrates, despite the importance for soil carbon stocks and turnover. Through implementing root–microbe interactions, the Carbon, Organisms, Rhizosphere and Protection in the Soil Environment (CORPSE) model was previously shown to represent dynamics of total soil carbon in temperate forest field experiments. However, the model permits alternative hypotheses concerning microbial‐substrate affinity. We investigated how root inputs affect decomposition of soil organic carbon (SOC) with variable decomposability. We simulated SOC stocks in CORPSE and compared microbial degradation of two substrate types with varying root–microbe interactions under two alternative hypotheses that varied in microbial‐substrate affinity. We compared our modelled hypotheses to a forest field experiment where we quantified decomposition of isotopically labelled starch and leaf tissues in soils with manipulated root access to microbes. We tested the hypothesis that decomposition of leaves would be more sensitive to root inputs than decomposition of starch, corresponding to the alternative model hypotheses. In the field study, leaf decomposition increased with root density, whereas starch decomposition was unchanged by root density. Microbial biomass and enzyme activity consistently increased with root inputs in CORPSE and the field study. Our field experiment supported the CORPSE simulations with high microbial‐substrate affinity. Roots stimulated microbial growth and enzyme production, which increased the degradation of more complex substrates such as leaf tissues. Substrates that were easily decomposed, such as starch, may already be degrading at a maximum rate in the absence of rhizosphere influence because their decomposition rate was unchanged by root inputs. We found that the degree to which roots stimulate microbial decomposition depends on the substrate being decomposed, and that root–microbe interactions influenced SOC stocks in both our model and field experiment. Environmental changes that alter root–microbe interactions could, therefore, alter soil C stocks and biogeochemical cycling, and models of these interactions should incorporate differential influence of rhizosphere inputs on different substrates. A free Plain Language Summary can be found within the Supporting Information of this article.
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    Functional Ecology, 34(4), 899-910
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