Physical fractionation is used increasingly to study the turnover of organic matter in soil. This essay links the methods of fractionation to concepts of turnover by defining levels of structural and functional complexity that refer to experimentally verifiable pools of organic matter in the soil.
Physical fractionation according to size and density of soil particles emphasizes the importance of interactions between organic and inorganic soil components in the turnover of organic matter. It allows the separation of free and occluded uncomplexed organic matter and of primary and secondary organomineral complexes. This methodological approach recognizes that the overall regulation of decomposer activity is through the structure of soil, which determines gas exchange, the availability of substrates and water, and the transport of solutes.
Results from physical fractionations suggest three levels of structural and functional complexity in the turnover of organic matter in soil. Primary organomineral complexes isolated from fully dispersed soil account for the primary level of complexity. The clay-, silt- and sand-sized complexes are seen as the basic units in soil, surface reactions between substrates, organisms and minerals being the main regulatory mechanisms. Secondary complexes reflect the degree of aggregation of primary organomineral complexes and refer to the second level of complexity. Physical protection of uncomplexed organic matter and soil organisms and the creation of gas and moisture gradients are emergent features regulating the turnover at this level of complexity. The structurally intact soil (the soil in situ) constitutes the third level of complexity. This integrates the effects of primary and secondary complexes. Emergent structural features associated with this level are resource islands, macropores, roots, mesofauna, tillage and soil compaction, the corresponding functional features being related to the transport and exchange of solutes and gases, and the spatial distribution and comminution of litter and uncomplexed organic matter. Thus, a thorough understanding of the turnover and storage of organic matter in soil can be acquired only by considering all levels of complexity in the decomposition subsystem.