Soil-specific response functions of organic matter mineralization to the availability of labile carbon


Correspondence: Eric Paterson, tel. + 44 (0) 1224 395354, fax + 44 (0) 8449 285929, e-mail:


Soil organic matter (SOM) mineralization processes are central to the functioning of soils in relation to feedbacks with atmospheric CO2 concentration, to sustainable nutrient supply, to structural stability and in supporting biodiversity. Recognition that labile C-inputs to soil (e.g. plant-derived) can significantly affect mineralization of SOM (‘priming effects’) complicates prediction of environmental and land-use change effects on SOM dynamics and soil C-balance. The aim of this study is to construct response functions for SOM priming to labile C (glucose) addition rates, for four contrasting soils. Six rates of glucose (3 atm% 13C) addition (in the range 0–1 mg glucose g−1 soil day−1) were applied for 8 days. Soil CO2 efflux was partitioned into SOM- and glucose-derived components by isotopic mass balance, allowing quantification of SOM priming over time for each soil type. Priming effects resulting from pool substitution effects in the microbial biomass (‘apparent priming’) were accounted for by determining treatment effects on microbial biomass size and isotopic composition. In general, SOM priming increased with glucose addition rate, approaching maximum rates specific for each soil (up to 200%). Where glucose additions saturated microbial utilization capacity (>0.5 mg glucose g−1 soil), priming was a soil-specific function of glucose mineralization rate. At low to intermediate glucose addition rates, the magnitude (and direction) of priming effects was more variable. These results are consistent with the view that SOM priming is supported by the availability of labile C, that priming is not a ubiquitous function of all components of microbial communities and that soils differ in the extent to which labile C stimulates priming. That priming effects can be represented as response functions to labile C addition rates may be a means of their explicit representation in soil C-models. However, these response functions are soil-specific and may be affected by several interacting factors at lower addition rates.