Spatial access and resource limitations control carbon mineralization in soils

Kaizad F. Patel, A. Peyton Smith, Ben Bond-Lamberty, Sarah J. Fansler, Malak M. Tfaily, Lisa Bramer, Tamas Varga, Vanessa L. Bailey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Core-scale soil carbon fluxes are ultimately regulated by pore-scale dynamics of substrate availability and microbial access. These are constrained by physicochemical and biochemical phenomena (e.g. spatial access and hydrologic connectivity, physical occlusion, adsorption-desorption with mineral surfaces, nutrient and resource limitations). We conducted an experiment to determine how spatial access and resource limitations influence core-scale water-soluble SOM mineralization, and how these are regulated by antecedent moisture conditions. Intact soil cores were incubated at field-moist vs. drought conditions, after which they were saturated from above (to simulate precipitation) or below (to simulate groundwater recharge). Soluble C (acetate) and N (nitrate) forms were added to some cores during the rewetting process to alleviate potential nutrient limitations. Soil respiration was measured during the incubation, after which pore water was extracted from the saturated soils and analyzed for water soluble organic carbon concentrations and characterization. Our results showed that C amendments increased the cumulative CO2 evolved from the soil cores, suggesting that the soils were C-limited. Drought and rewetting increased soil respiration, and there was a greater abundance of complex aromatic molecules in pore waters sampled from these soils. This newly available substrate appeared to alleviate nutrient limitations on respiration, because there were no further respiration increases with subsequent C and N amendments. We had hypothesized that respiration would be influenced by wetting direction, as simulated precipitation would mobilize C from the surface. However, as a main effect, this response was seen only in the C-amended soils, indicating that surface-C may not have been bioavailable. At the pore scale (pore water samples), drought and the C, N amendments caused a net loss of identified molecules when the soils were rewet from below, whereas wetting from above caused a net increase in identified molecules, suggesting that fresh inputs stimulated the C-and N-limited microbial populations present deeper in the soil profile. Our experiment highlights the complex and interactive role of antecedent moisture conditions, wetting direction, and resource limitations in driving core-scale C fluxes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108427
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Carbon protection
  • Nutrient limitations
  • Pore water
  • Respiration
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Spatial access

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Soil Science


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