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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Sub-micron level investigation reveals the inaccessibility of stabilized carbon in soil microaggregates


Direct evidence-based approaches are vital to evaluating newly proposed theories on the persistence of soil organic carbon and establishing the contributions of abiotic and biotic controls. Our primary goal was to directly identify the mechanisms of organic carbon stabilization in native-state, free soil microaggregates without disrupting the aggregate microstructure using scanning transmission x-ray microscopy coupled with near edge x-ray absorption fine structure spectroscopy (STXM-NEXAFS). The influence of soil management practices on microaggregate associated-carbon was also assessed. Free, stable soil microaggregates were collected from a tropical agro-ecosystem in Cruz Alta, Brazil. The long-term experimental plots (>25 years) comparing two tillage systems: no-till and till with a complex crop rotation. Based on simultaneously collected multi-elemental associations and speciation, STXM-NEXAFS successfully provided submicron level information on organo-mineral associations. Simple organic carbon sources were found preserved within microaggregates; some still possessing original morphology, suggesting that their stabilization was not entirely governed by the substrate chemistry. Bulk analysis showed higher and younger organic carbon in microaggregates from no-till systems than tilled systems. These results provide direct submicron level evidence that the surrounding environment is involved in stabilizing organic carbon, thus favoring newly proposed concepts on the persistence of soil organic carbon.

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