Emissions of volatile organic compounds during the decomposition of plant litter

Christopher M. Gray, Russell K. Monson, Noah Fierer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

106 Scopus citations


Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted during plant litter decomposition, and such VOCs can have wide-ranging impacts on atmospheric chemistry, terrestrial biogeochemistry, and soil ecology. However, we currently have a limited understanding of the relative importance of biotic versus abiotic sources of these VOCs and whether distinct types of litter emit different types and quantities of VOCs during decomposition. We analyzed VOCs emitted by microbes or by abiotic mechanisms during the decomposition of litter from 12 plant species in a laboratory experiment using proton transfer reaction mass spectrometry (PTR-MS). Net emissions from litter with active microbial populations (non-sterile litters) were between 0 and 11 times higher than emissions from sterile controls over a 20-d incubation period, suggesting that abiotic sources of VOCs are generally less important than biotic sources. In all cases, the sterile and non-sterile litter treatments emitted different types of VOCs, with methanol being the dominant VOC emitted from litters during microbial decomposition, accounting for 78 to 99% of the net emissions. We also found that the types of VOCs released during biotic decomposition differed in a predictable manner among litter types with VOC profiles also changing as decomposition progressed over time. These results show the importance of incorporating both the biotic decomposition of litter and the species-dependent differences in terrestrial vegetation into global VOC emission models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberG03015
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Forestry
  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Palaeontology


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