Carbon quality and the temperature sensitivity of soil organic carbon decomposition in a tallgrass prairie

Xia Xu, Yiqi Luo, Jizhong Zhou

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


The temperature sensitivity of soil organic carbon (SOC) decomposition will influence the accuracy of the quantitative prediction of carbon (C) balance between ecosystem C fixation and decomposition in a warmer world. However, a consensus has not yet been reached on the temperature sensitivity of SOC decomposition with respect to SOC quality. The fundamental principles of enzyme kinetics suggest that temperature sensitivity of decomposition is inversely related to the C quality of the SOC. This " C quality-temperature" hypothesis was tested in a 170-day laboratory experiment by incubating soil samples with changing temperature (low-high-low) at a ±5 °C step every 24 h. Soil samples were collected from a long-term warming experiment in a tallgrass prairie. There were four treatments of soil samples before lab incubation: control (C), warmed (W), field incubation (FI, litter exclusion), and warmed plus field incubation (WFI). Results showed that SOC decomposition rates were influenced by labile organic C (LOC) content, which were low in the soils under field incubation and decreased with increasing lab incubation time. Field warming and field incubation increased the temperature sensitivity of SOC decomposition in the 1st two lab incubation cycles but the treatment effects diminished as decomposition proceeded, probably due to increased contribution of recalcitrant C. In line with the hypothesis, we found that the lower the SOC quality, the higher the Q 10 values. This relationship held across treatments and lab incubation cycles, regardless of whether the differences in SOC quality resulted from inherent differences in SOC chemistry or from differences in the extent of SOC decomposition. Treatment effects of field warming and field incubation on SOC quality and Q 10 values also negatively correlated with each other. Our results suggest that dynamics of low-quality SOC have the highest potential to impact long-term C stocks in soils. Potential decreases in SOC quality in response to warming and consequent shifting species composition may result in a positive feedback of SOC to climate change in the future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)142-148
Number of pages7
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Jul 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Carbon quality
  • Decomposition
  • Global warming
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Tallgrass prairie
  • Temperature sensitivity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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