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Volume 412, 2022, 115727

Formation efficiency of soil organic matter from plant litter is governed by clay mineral type more than plant litter quality

Yuzhi Xua,b,c,1, Kai Liua,b,c,1, Shuihong Yaoa, Yueling Zhanga, Xudong Zhangd

National Engineering Laboratory for Improving Fertility of Arable Soils, Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing 100081, PR China.


Plant litters incorporated in soils are decomposed by microorganisms and partially transformed into soil organic matter (SOM) through mineral-organic association and physical protection in soil aggregates. Few studies have linked the effects of clay mineralogy and plant litter quality on controlling the formation efficiency of SOM. Using model soils, the objectives of this study were (1) to determine the effects of clay mineral type and plant litter quality on soil respiration dynamics, and formation efficiency of SOM, physical fractions, and chemical and microbial compositions of SOM at the end of a 120-day incubation; (2) to unravel SOM protection mechanisms and extents by specific clay minerals; and (3) to understand the key role of clay minerals relative to plant litter quality in controlling SOM formation. The changes in X-ray diffraction peak intensity (in terms of peak height) of the clay minerals during incubation and after H2O2 treatment provided evidence for surface adsorption by vermiculite and pore entrapment by kaolinite and illite assemblages. The SOM protection extent parameter, defined based on accumulative soil respiration dynamics, explained well the variation of the formation efficiency of mineral associated SOM (MAOM) and, to a lesser extent, that of occluded particulate SOM (oPOM) in aggregates. 90–96% of plant litter-derived C was protected in the vermiculite material and 33–60% in the pure kaolinite and illite materials. The pure vermiculite material showed the greatest fractions of MAOM and oPOM, the highest relative abundances of O–alkyls and anomeric from carbohydrates in the MAOM fraction. < 1% of plant litter-derived C was transformed into microbial biomass and residues, and fungal residues only were associated with the pure vermiculite material. These results suggested that plant litter incorporated into the soil was decomposed mainly through the ex vivo modification pathway and transformed into SOM through both mineral-organic association and physical protection pathways. Plant litter-derived C was likely protected through mineral-organic association from the earlier stages of decomposition by vermiculite than kaolinite and illite, resulting in more plant carbohydrates associated with vermiculite. Therefore, clay minerals determined SOM formation pathways and played a greater role in controlling SOM formation efficiency than plant litter quality.

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