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Keywords:

  • activation energy;
  • carbon molecular structure;
  • carbon use efficiency;
  • density fractionation;
  • dissolved organic matter;
  • enzyme kinetics;
  • soil organic matter;
  • substrate quality;
  • temperature dependency

Abstract

Temperature sensitivity of soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition may have a significant impact on global warming. Enzyme-kinetic hypothesis suggests that decomposition of low-quality substrate (recalcitrant molecular structure) requires higher activation energy and thus has greater temperature sensitivity than that of high-quality, labile substrate. Supporting evidence, however, relies largely on indirect indices of substrate quality. Furthermore, the enzyme-substrate reactions that drive decomposition may be regulated by microbial physiology and/or constrained by protective effects of soil mineral matrix. We thus tested the kinetic hypothesis by directly assessing the carbon molecular structure of low-density fraction (LF) which represents readily accessible, mineral-free SOM pool. Using five mineral soil samples of contrasting SOM concentrations, we conducted 30-days incubations (15, 25, and 35 °C) to measure microbial respiration and quantified easily soluble C as well as microbial biomass C pools before and after the incubations. Carbon structure of LFs (<1.6 and 1.6–1.8 g cm−3) and bulk soil was measured by solid-state 13C-NMR. Decomposition Q10 was significantly correlated with the abundance of aromatic plus alkyl-C relative to O-alkyl-C groups in LFs but not in bulk soil fraction or with the indirect C quality indices based on microbial respiration or biomass. The warming did not significantly change the concentration of biomass C or the three types of soluble C despite two- to three-fold increase in respiration. Thus, enhanced microbial maintenance respiration (reduced C-use efficiency) especially in the soils rich in recalcitrant LF might lead to the apparent equilibrium between SOM solubilization and microbial C uptake. Our results showed physical fractionation coupled with direct assessment of molecular structure as an effective approach and supported the enzyme-kinetic interpretation of widely observed C quality-temperature relationship for short-term decomposition. Factors controlling long-term decomposition Q10 are more complex due to protective effect of mineral matrix and thus remain as a central question.