Dynamics of organic matter molecular composition under aerobic decomposition and their response to the nitrogen addition in grassland soils

Qian Zhao, Allison M. Thompson, Stephen J. Callister, Malak M. Tfaily, Sheryl L. Bell, Sarah E. Hobbie, Kirsten S. Hofmockel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


Grassland soils store a substantial proportion of the global soil carbon (C) stock. The transformation of C in grassland soils with respect to chemical composition and persistence strongly regulate the predicted terrestrial-atmosphere C flux in global C biogeochemical cycling models. In addition, increasing atmospheric nitrogen (N) deposition alters C chemistry in grassland soils. However, there remains controversy about the importance of mineralogical versus biochemical preservation of soil C, as well as uncertainty regarding how grassland soil C chemistry responds to elevated N. This study used grassland soils with diverse soil organic matter (SOM) chemistries in an 8-month aerobic incubation experiment to evaluate whether the chemical composition of SOM converged across sites over time, and how SOM persistence responded to the N addition. This study demonstrates that over the course of incubation, the richness of labile compounds decreased in soils with less ferrihydrite content, whereas labile compounds were more persistent in ferrihydrite rich soils. In contrast, we found that the richness of more complex compounds increased over the incubation in most sites, independent of soil mineralogy. Moreover, we demonstrate the extent to which the diverse chemical composition of SOM converged among sites in response to microbial decomposition. N fertilization decreased soil respiration and inhibited the convergence of molecular composition across ecosystems by altering N demand for microbial metabolism and chemical interactions between minerals and organic molecules. This study provides original evidence that the decomposition and metabolism of labile organic molecules were largely regulated by soil mineralogy (physicochemical preservation), while the metabolism of more complex organic molecules was controlled by substrate complexity (biochemical preservation) independent to mineral-organic interactions. This study advanced our understanding of the dynamic biogeochemical cycling of C by unveiling that N addition dampened C respiration and diminished the convergence of SOM chemistry across diverse grassland ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number150514
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Feb 1 2022


  • Microbial decomposition
  • Mineral-organic matter association
  • Molecular transformation
  • Nitrogen fertilization
  • Respiration
  • Soil organic matter persistence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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