EGU General Assembly 2022
© Author(s) 2022. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Belowground allocation and dynamics of recently fixed plant carbon in a California annual grassland

Mary Firestone1, Christina Fossum1, Katerina Estera-Molina1, Mengting Yuan1, Don Herman1, Ilexis Chu-Jacoby1, Peter Nico2, Keith Morrison3, and Jennifer Pett-Ridge3
Mary Firestone et al.
  • 1Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA
  • 2Earth Sciences Division, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, CA, USA
  • 3Physical and Life Sciences Directorate, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA, USA

Plant roots and the organisms that surround them are a primary source for stabilized soil organic carbon (SOC). While grassland soils have a large capacity to store organic carbon (C), few field-based studies have quantified the amount of plant-fixed C that moves into soil and persists belowground over multiple years. Yet this characteristic of the soil C cycle is critical to C storage, soil water holding capacity and nutrient provisions, and the management of soil health. We tracked the fate of plant-fixed C following a five-day 13CO2labeling of a Northern California annual grassland, measuring C pools starting at the end of the labeling period, at three days, four weeks, six months, one year, and two years. Soil organic carbon was fractionated using a density-based approach to separate the free-light fraction (FLF), occluded-light fraction (OLF), and heavy fraction (HF). Using isotope ratio mass spectrometry, we measured 13C enrichment and total C content for plant shoots, roots, soil, soil dissolved organic carbon (DOC), and the FLF, OLF, and HF. The chemical nature of C in the HF was further analyzed by solid state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.
At the end of the labeling period, a substantial portion of the
13C (40%) was already found belowground in roots, soil, and soil DOC. By 4 weeks, the highest isotope enrichment and 27% of the total amount of 13C remaining in the system was associated with the mineral-rich HF. At the 6-month sampling—after the dry summer period during which plants senesced and died—the amount of label in the FLF increased to an amount similar to that in the HF. The FLF 13C then declined substantially by 1 year and further decreased in the 2ndyear. By the end of the 2-year experiment, 67% of remaining label was in the HF, with 19% in the FLF and 14% in the OLF.
While the
13C content in the HF was stable over the final year, the chemical forms associated with the HF evolved with time. The relative proportion of aliphatic/alkyl C functional groups declined in the newly formed SOC over the 2-years in the field; simultaneously, aromatic and carbonyl/carboxylic C functional groups increased and the proportion of carbohydrate (O-alkyl C) groups remained relatively constant.
Our results indicate that plant-fixed C moved into soil within days of its fixation and was associated with the soil mineral fraction within weeks. While most of the annual plant C input in these grasslands cycles rapidly (<2-year timescale), a sizeable proportion (about 23% of the
13C present at day 0) persisted in the soil for longer than 2 years. While decadal studies would allow improved assessment of the long-term stabilization of newly fixed plant C, our 2-year field study reveals surprisingly rapid movement of plant C into the HF of soil, followed by subsequent evolution of the chemical forms of organic C in the HF.

How to cite: Firestone, M., Fossum, C., Estera-Molina, K., Yuan, M., Herman, D., Chu-Jacoby, I., Nico, P., Morrison, K., and Pett-Ridge, J.: Belowground allocation and dynamics of recently fixed plant carbon in a California annual grassland, EGU General Assembly 2022, Vienna, Austria, 23–27 May 2022, EGU22-13569,, 2022.