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Soil carbon storage informed by particulate and mineral-associated organic matter


Effective land-based solutions to climate change mitigation require actions that maximize soil carbon storage without generating surplus nitrogen. Land management for carbon sequestration is most often informed by bulk soil carbon inventories, without considering the form in which carbon is stored, its capacity, persistency and nitrogen demand. Here, we present coupling of European-wide databases with soil organic matter physical fractionation to determine continental-scale forest and grassland topsoil carbon and nitrogen stocks and their distribution between mineral-associated and particulate organic matter pools. Grasslands and arbuscular mycorrhizal forests store more soil carbon in mineral-associated organic carbon, which is more persistent but has a higher nitrogen demand and saturates. Ectomycorrhizal forests store more carbon in particulate organic matter, which is more vulnerable to disturbance but has a lower nitrogen demand and can potentially accumulate indefinitely. The share of carbon between mineral-associated and particulate organic matter and the ratio between carbon and nitrogen affect soil carbon stocks and mediate the effects of other variables on soil carbon stocks. Understanding the physical distribution of organic matter in pools of mineral-associated versus particulate organic matter can inform land management for nitrogen-efficient carbon sequestration, which should be driven by the inherent soil carbon capacity and nitrogen availability in ecosystems.

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Fig. 1: Geographical distribution of soil OC and N stocks in the top mineral soil (0–20 cm) of European forests and grasslands.
Fig. 2: Soil C/N ratios in the top 20 cm of mineral soils of European forests and grasslands.
Fig. 3: Box plots of SOM pools and C/N by mycorrhizal association.
Fig. 4: Soil organic C in MAOM and POM.
Fig. 5: A schematic representation of the path analyses used to identify the controls on SOC stocks.

Data availability

Data from the LUCAS database can be accessed at The fractionation data will be made available at the European Soil Data Centre of the EU Joint Research Centre website ( The tree occurrence dataset can be also downloaded from, associated with the paper by Mauri et al.21. The final dataset is available from the European Soil Data Centre of the European Commission: Requests for data can be addressed to E.L. (

Code availability

The R scripts are available from the European Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) of the European Commission:


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We thank A. Mauri, G. Strona and J. San-Miguel-Ayanz for provision of forests data. We thank C. Tuminello for assisting with soil analysis. This work was supported by the JRC (purchase order no. D.B720517), through an OECD Co-operative Research Programme: Biological Resource Management for Sustainable Agricultural Systems fellowship and the NSF-DEB project no. 1743237.

Author information




M.F.C., E.L. and J.S. developed the research concepts. E.L. and M.G.R. conducted the data and statistical analyses. M.L.H. performed the soil analyses. M.F.C., E.L. and J.S. interpreted the data and wrote the paper with contributions from M.G.R. and M.L.H.

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Correspondence to M. Francesca Cotrufo.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor(s): Xujia Jiang.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–8 and Tables 1–4.

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Cotrufo, M.F., Ranalli, M.G., Haddix, M.L. et al. Soil carbon storage informed by particulate and mineral-associated organic matter. Nat. Geosci. 12, 989–994 (2019).

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