Letter

Nature 450, 277-280 (8 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature06275; Received 5 February 2007; Accepted 13 September 2007

Stability of organic carbon in deep soil layers controlled by fresh carbon supply

Sébastien Fontaine1, Sébastien Barot2, Pierre Barré3, Nadia Bdioui1, Bruno Mary4 & Cornelia Rumpel3

  1. INRA, UR 874 Agronomie, 234 Avenue du Brézet, 63100 Clermont-Ferrand, France
  2. IRD, UMR 137, 32 Avenue H. Varagnat, 93143 Bondy, France
  3. BIOEMCO, UMR 7618, CNRS-INRA-ENS-Paris 6, Bâtiment EGER, Aile B, 78820 Thiverval-Grignon, France
  4. INRA, UR 1158 Agronomie, Rue Fernand Christ, 02007 Laon, France

Correspondence to: Sébastien Fontaine1 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to S.F. (Email: fontaine@clermont.inra.fr).

The world's soils store more carbon than is present in biomass and in the atmosphere1. Little is known, however, about the factors controlling the stability of soil organic carbon stocks2, 3, 4 and the response of the soil carbon pool to climate change remains uncertain5, 6. We investigated the stability of carbon in deep soil layers in one soil profile by combining physical and chemical characterization of organic carbon, soil incubations and radiocarbon dating. Here we show that the supply of fresh plant-derived carbon to the subsoil (0.6–0.8 m depth) stimulated the microbial mineralization of 2,567 plusminus 226-year-old carbon. Our results support the previously suggested idea7 that in the absence of fresh organic carbon, an essential source of energy for soil microbes, the stability of organic carbon in deep soil layers is maintained. We propose that a lack of supply of fresh carbon may prevent the decomposition of the organic carbon pool in deep soil layers in response to future changes in temperature. Any change in land use and agricultural practice that increases the distribution of fresh carbon along the soil profile1, 8, 9 could however stimulate the loss of ancient buried carbon.

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