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Using respiration quotients to track changing sources of soil respiration seasonally and with experimental warming


Developing a more mechanistic understanding of soil respiration is hampered by the difficulty in determining the contribution of different organic substrates to respiration and in disentangling autotrophic-versus-heterotrophic and aerobic-versus-anaerobic processes. Here, we use a relatively novel tool for better understanding soil respiration: The apparent respiration quotient (ARQ). The ARQ is the amount of CO2 produced in the soil divided by the amount of O2 consumed, and it changes according to which organic substrates are being consumed and whether oxygen is being used as an electron acceptor. We investigated how the ARQ of soil gas varied seasonally, by soil depth, and by in situ experimental warming (+4 °C) in a coniferousforest whole-soil-profile warming experiment over 2 years. We then compared the patterns in ARQ to those of soil δ13CO2. Our measurements showed strong seasonal variations in ARQ, from ≈ 0.9 during the late spring and summer to 0:7 during the winter. This pattern likely reflected a shift from respiration being fueled by oxidized substrates like sugars and organic acids derived from root and root respiration during the growing season to more reduced substrates such as lipids and proteins derived from microbial necromass during the winter. This interpretation was supported by δ13CO2 values, which were lower, like lipids, in the winter and higher, like sugars, in the summer. Furthermore, experimental warming significantly changed how both ARQ and δ13CO2 responded to soil temperature. Wintertime ARQ and δ13CO2 values were higher in heated than in control plots, probably due to the warming-driven increase in microbial activity that may have utilized oxidized carbon substrates, while growing-season values were lower in heated plots. Experimental warming and phenology change the sources of soil respiration throughout the soil profile. The sensitivity of ARQ to these changes demonstrates its potential as a tool for disentangling the biological sources contributing to soil respiration.

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