The Science of the total environment

Molecular composition of soil organic matter with land-use change along a bi-continental mean annual temperature gradient.

PMID 27572539


Soil organic matter (SOM) is critical for maintaining soil fertility and long-term agricultural sustainability. The molecular composition of SOM is likely altered due to global climate and land-use change; but rarely are these two aspects studied in tandem. Here we used molecular-level techniques to examine SOM composition along a bi-continental (from North to South America) mean annual temperature (MAT) gradient from seven native grassland/forest and cultivated/pasture sites. Biomarker methods included solvent extraction, base hydrolysis and cupric (II) oxide oxidation for the analysis of free lipids of plant and microbial origin, ester-bound lipids from cutin and suberin, and lignin-derived phenols, respectively. Solid-state (13)C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) was used to examine the overall composition of SOM. Soil cultivation was found to increase the amount of microbial-derived compounds at warmer temperatures (up to 17% increase). The cultivated soils were characterized by much lower contributions of plant-derived SOM components compared to the native soils (up to 64% lower at the coldest site). In addition, cultivation caused an increase in lignin and cutin degradation (up to 68 and 15% increase, respectively), and an increase in the amount of suberin-derived inputs (up to 54% increase). Clear differences in the molecular composition of SOM due to soil cultivation were observed in soils of varying mineral composition and were attributed to disturbance, different vegetation inputs, soil aggregate destruction and MAT. A high organic allophanic tropical soil was characterized by its protection of carbohydrates and nitrogen-containing compounds. The conversion of native to cultivated land shows significant shifts in the degradation stage of SOM. In particular, cutin-derived compounds which are believed to be part of the stable SOM pool may undergo enhanced degradation with long-term cultivation and disruption of soil aggregates. On a per year basis, the total amount of cutin decreased only at the two forest sites that were converted to pasture, likely due to cutin degradation or to changes in vegetation and litter quality associated with land-use change. Overall, our study highlights that the implementation of different agricultural management practices enhances the degradation of recalcitrant SOM compounds that may become a source of atmospheric CO2 with increasing land-use and climate change.

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