LOCKED UP: The role of biotic and abiotic interactions in the stabilisation and persistence of soil organic carbon

Loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) through human land use is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of the 21st century. SOC loss contributes to climate change, makes soils less suitable for crops, reduces soil fertility through associated loss of nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) as plant nutrients, and reduces water holding capacity and drainage to aquifers - adversely impacting drought and flood resistance, water quality and water availability. The international initiative "4 per mille" addresses the threat of SOC loss to food security, climate regulation and water resources and aims to reverse global SOC losses through sustained, incremental (e.g. 0.4 % per year) increases.

Our research project aims to transform fundamental knowledge of the processes and mechanisms of SOC production and persistence in soil to inform land management innovation, and quantify the capacity and time scale to increase persistent - i.e. "LOCKED UP" - SOC stocks.

Our hypothesis is that persistent SOC is produced by a series of complex but testable interactions between soil microbes and soil minerals: 1) relatively rapid microbial transformation of plant biomass input to soil, which produces; 2) specific classes of SOC compounds including extracellular products and components of dead cells that are essential precursors to persistent forms, which are then 3) stabilised against microbial degradation through chemical sorption to soil minerals, which can remove SOC from the microbially accessible C pool; and 4) physically protected against microbial degradation through aggregation of soil particles and soil organic matter, where SOC is protected from microbial degradation in inter and intraparticle pore spaces.

Our approach is to undertake linked laboratory studies, field sampling and modelling to obtain fundamental knowledge of key functional groups of soil microbes, the microbial operations and their rates which transform SOC to forms which then persist with minerals and within mineral aggregates; and to quantify how these transformations and persistent forms respond to changing environmental factors - plant input C:N ratios, water stress, indigenous microbial community composition, redox status, ionic composition and nutrient status of pore waters, temperature, and physical disturbance.

The complex and interactive stages of forming persistent SOC will be quantified in stages, in model systems of microbial cultures, aqueous media and selected minerals in built and real soil matrices, as an idealised and experimentally tractable representation of the soil environment. In multi-factorial experiments that account for the range of environmental conditions, we will quantify rate laws and constants for SOC transformations based on first principles of mass balance, biological growth, chemical mass action and physical-chemical colloid interactions. The results will be implemented into an existing soil process model.

This advance in mechanistic knowledge will allow us to build model simulations from a strong first principles understanding of the SOC transformation dynamics and resulting changes in soil structure and bulk properties. We will test these advances against independent data from manipulation experiments on whole soil cores from agricultural sites. Manipulation of additional soil cores - obtained from selected soil types and biomes to reflect specific regions and land uses around the world - will be carried out with application of the mechanistic soil process model.

The experimental and model results will be used to assess - for key soil types, climate regions and land uses - the potential maximum, time scale and persistence of SOC that can be obtained from hypothesised land-use practices to increase stocks of persistent SOC - e.g. by changing tillage practices, vegetation cover and water management.