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Increased cuticular carbon sequestration and lignin oxidation in response to soil warming

Nature Geoscience volume 1, pages 836839 (2008) | Download Citation



Rising temperatures are predicted to accelerate the decomposition of labile soil organic compounds such as proteins and carbohydrates, whereas biochemically resistant compounds, such as lipids from leaf cuticles and roots and lignin from woody tissues, are expected to remain stable on decadal to centennial timescales1,2. However, the extent to which soil warming changes the molecular composition of soil organic matter is poorly understood3,4. Here we examine the impact of soil warming in a mixed temperate forest on the molecular make-up of soil organic matter. We show that the abundance of leaf-cuticle-derived compounds is increased following 14 months of soil warming; we confirm this with nuclear magnetic resonance spectra of soil organic matter extracts. In contrast, we find that the abundance of lignin-derived compounds is decreased after the same treatment, while soil fungi, the primary decomposers of lignin in soil5, increase in abundance. We conclude that future warming could alter the composition of soil organic matter at the molecular level, accelerating lignin degradation and increasing leaf-cuticle-derived carbon sequestration. With annual litterfall predicted to increase in the world’s major forests with a 3 C warming6, we suggest that future warming may enhance the sequestration of cuticular carbon in soil.

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Financial support from the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences (GR-520) supported this research. M.J.S also thanks the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) for support through a University Faculty Award (UFA). X.F. acknowledges financial support from the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) programme. D.D.W. thanks NSERC for support through a Discovery Grant.

Author information


  1. Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario M1C 1A4, Canada

    • Xiaojuan Feng
    • , André J. Simpson
    •  & Myrna J. Simpson
  2. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario M1C 1A4, Canada

    • Kevin P. Wilson
    •  & D. Dudley Williams


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All authors commented on the manuscript and carried out research. K.P.W. and D.D.W. designed and carried out field experiments. X.F., M.J.S. and A.J.S. designed and carried out sample analysis, analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Myrna J. Simpson.

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