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Soil Biology and Biochemistry
Vol. 85, 2015, Pages: 39–50

Carbon input and crop-related changes in microbial biomarker levels strongly affect the turnover and composition of soil organic carbon

Jana Schmidt, Elke Schulz, Beate Michalzik, Francois Buscot, Jessica L.M. Gutknecht

UFZ – Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Department of Soil Ecology, Theodor-Lieser-Str. 4, D-06120 Halle, Germany.


It is increasingly recognized that a detailed understanding of the impacts of land use on soil carbon pools and microbially mediated carbon dynamics is required in order to accurately describe terrestrial carbon budgets and improve soil carbon retention. Toward this understanding, we analyzed the levels of biomarkers including phospholipid fatty acids, amino acids, monosaccharides, amino sugars, and several indicators of labile and stabilized carbon in soil samples from a long-term agricultural field experiment. Our results imply that the composition of soil organic carbon (SOC) strongly depends on both the applied fertilization regime and the cultivated crop. In addition, our approach allowed us to identify possible mechanisms of microbial growth and contributions to soil carbon storage under different long-term agricultural management regimes.

Amino acids and monosaccharides were quantitatively the most dominant biomarkers and their levels correlated strongly positively with microbial biomass. The relative contributions of the studied biomarkers to the total SOC varied only slightly among the treatments except in cases of extreme fertilization and without any fertilizer. In case of extreme fertilization and with alfalfa as crop type, we found evidence for accumulation of microbially derived monosaccharides and amino acids within the labile OC pool, probably resulting from soil C saturation. Interestingly, we also found an accumulation of microbially derived monosaccharides and amino acids in completely unfertilized plots, which we assumed to be caused by the smaller pore space volume and subsequent oxygen limitation for microbial growth. Mineral fertilization also had substantial effects on soil organic N when applied to plots containing alfalfa, a leguminous plant. Our results demonstrate that over-fertilization, fertilizer type, and the cultivated crop type can have major impacts on the turnover and composition of soil organic carbon, and should be considered when assessing management effects on soil C dynamics.

Keywords: SOC quality; Microbial biomass; Amino acids; Amino sugars; Monosaccharides; Long-term fertilization.

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