A 13C tracer study to identify the origin of dissolved organic carbon in forested mineral soils


F. Hagedorn. E-mail: hagedorn@wsl.ch


The relative contributions of sources of carbon in soils, such as throughfall, litter, roots, microbial decay products and stable organic fractions, to dissolved organic C are controversial. To identify the origin of dissolved organic C, we made use of a 4-year experiment where spruce and beech, growing on an acidic loam and on a calcareous sand, were exposed to increased CO2 that was depleted in 13C. We traced the new C inputs from trees into dissolved organic C, into water-extractable organic C, and into several particle-size fractions. In addition, we incubated the labelled soils for 1 year and measured the production of dissolved organic C and CO2 from new and old soil C. In the soil solutions of the topsoil, the dissolved organic C contained only 5–10% new C from the trees. The δ13C values of dissolved organic C resembled those of C pools smaller than 50 µm, which strongly suggests that the major source of dissolved organic C was humified old C. Apparently, throughfall, fresh litter and roots made only minor contributions to dissolved organic C. Water-extractable organic C contained significantly larger fractions of new C than did the natural dissolved organic C (25–30%). The δ13C values of the water-extractable organic C were closely correlated with those of sand fractions, which consisted of little decomposed organic carbon. The different origin of dissolved and water-extractable organic C was also reflected in a significantly larger molar UV absorptivity and a smaller natural 13C abundance of dissolved organic C. This implies that the sampling method strongly influences the characteristics and sources of dissolved organic C. Incubation of soils showed that new soil C was preferentially respired as CO2 and only a small fraction of new C was leached as dissolved organic C. Our results suggest that dissolved organic C is produced during incomplete decomposition of recalcitrant native C in the soils, whereas easily degradable new components are rapidly consumed by microbes and thus make only a minor contribution to the dissolved C fraction.