Soil carbon dynamics is strongly controlled by depth globally, with increasingly slow dynamics found at depth. The mechanistic basis remains however controversial, limiting our ability to predict carbon cycle-climate feedbacks. Here we combine radiocarbon and thermal analyses with long-term incubations in absence/presence of continuously 13C/14C-labelled plants to show that bioenergetic constraints of decomposers consistently drive the depth-dependency of soil carbon dynamics over a range of mineral reactivity contexts. The slow dynamics of subsoil carbon is tightly related to both its low energy density and high activation energy of decomposition, leading to an unfavourable ‘return-on-energy-investment’ for decomposers. We also observe strong acceleration of millennia-old subsoil carbon decomposition induced by roots (‘rhizosphere priming’), showing that sufficient supply of energy by roots is able to alleviate the strong energy limitation of decomposition. These findings demonstrate that subsoil carbon persistence results from its poor energy quality together with the lack of energy supply by roots due to their low density at depth.
Reference : Hénneron L., Balesdent J., Alvarez J., Barré P., Baudin F., Basile-Doelsch I., Cécillon L., Fernandez-Martinez A., Hatté C., Fontaine S., 2022. Bioenergetic control of soil carbon dynamics across depth. Nature Communications 13, 7676. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-34951-w