Persistence of soil organic carbon caused by functional complexity


Soil organic carbon management has the potential to aid climate change mitigation through drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide. To be effective, such management must account for processes influencing carbon storage and re-emission at different space and time scales. Achieving this requires a conceptual advance in our understanding to link carbon dynamics from the scales at which processes occur to the scales at which decisions are made. Here, we propose that soil carbon persistence can be understood through the lens of decomposers as a result of functional complexity derived from the interplay between spatial and temporal variation of molecular diversity and composition. For example, co-location alone can determine whether a molecule is decomposed, with rapid changes in moisture leading to transport of organic matter and constraining the fitness of the microbial community, while greater molecular diversity may increase the metabolic demand of, and thus potentially limit, decomposition. This conceptual shift accounts for emergent behaviour of the microbial community and would enable soil carbon changes to be predicted without invoking recalcitrant carbon forms that have not been observed experimentally. Functional complexity as a driver of soil carbon persistence suggests soil management should be based on constant care rather than one-time action to lock away carbon in soils.

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Fig. 1: Functional complexity and the persistence of soil organic carbon.
Fig. 2: Emergent behaviour of soil organic carbon decomposition.
Fig. 3: Integration of molecular, spatial and temporal complexity with management and prediction of soil carbon sequestration.
Fig. 4: Regenerative soil carbon practice consistent with promotion of functional diversity to increase soil carbon persistence.


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We are grateful to the Institute of Advanced Study at the Technical University of Munich for organizing the workshop under the Hans-Fischer-Senior Program that allowed the completion of this manuscript, funded by the German Excellence Initiative and the European Union Seventh Framework Programme under grant agreement no. 291763. C.K. received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 819446). W.R.W. acknowledges funding by the US Department of Energy, Office of Biological and Environmental Research Genomic Science Program under award number DE-SC0016364. S.M. was supported by the Swedish Research Council Vetenskapsrådet (grant 2016-04146).

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All authors participated in generating the concept. J.L., S.M., N.N., C.K. and K.M. drafted first versions of the figures. All authors contributed to writing and editing.

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Correspondence to Johannes Lehmann.

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Lehmann, J., Hansel, C.M., Kaiser, C. et al. Persistence of soil organic carbon caused by functional complexity. Nat. Geosci. 13, 529–534 (2020).

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