Through the eye of the needle: a review of isotope approaches to quantify microbial processes mediating soil carbon balance


Author for correspondence:
Eric Paterson
Tel: +44 1224395354



IV.Interactions between carbon inputs and outputs from soil27


For soils in carbon balance, losses of soil carbon from biological activity are balanced by organic inputs from vegetation. Perturbations, such as climate or land use change, have the potential to disrupt this balance and alter soil–atmosphere carbon exchanges. As the quantification of soil organic matter stocks is an insensitive means of detecting changes, certainly over short timescales, there is a need to apply methods that facilitate a quantitative understanding of the biological processes underlying soil carbon balance. We outline the processes by which plant carbon enters the soil and critically evaluate isotopic methods to quantify them. Then, we consider the balancing CO2 flux from soil and detail the importance of partitioning the sources of this flux into those from recent plant assimilate and those from native soil organic matter. Finally, we consider the interactions between the inputs of carbon to soil and the losses from soil mediated by biological activity. We emphasize the key functional role of the microbiota in the concurrent processing of carbon from recent plant inputs and native soil organic matter. We conclude that quantitative isotope labelling and partitioning methods, coupled to those for the quantification of microbial community substrate use, offer the potential to resolve the functioning of the microbial control point of soil carbon balance in unprecedented detail.