Revisiting the concept of recalcitrance and organic matter persistence in soils and aquatic systems: Does environment trump chemistry?

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 8:30 AM
Erika Marin-Spiotta, University of Wisconsin Madison, Madison, WI, United States
Most ecological models of decomposition rely on plant litter chemistry. However, growing evidence suggests that the chemical composition of organic matter (OM) is not a good predictor of its eventual fate in terrestrial or aquatic environments. New data on variable decomposition rates of select organic compounds challenge concepts of chemical recalcitrance, i.e. the inherent ability of certain molecular structures to resist biodegradation. The role of environmental or “ecosystem” properties on influencing decomposition dates back to some of the earliest research on soil OM. Despite early recognition that the physical and aqueous matrices are critical in determining the fate of organic compounds, the prevailing paradigm hinges on intrinsic chemical properties as principal predictors of decay rate. Here I build upon recent reviews and discuss new findings that contribute to three major transformations in our understanding of OM persistence: (1) a shift away from an emphasis on chemical recalcitrance as a primary predictor of turnover, (2) new interpretations of radiocarbon ages which challenge predictions of reactivity, and (3) the recognition that most detrital OM accumulating in soils and in water has been microbially processed. Predictions of OM persistence due to aromaticity are challenged by high variability in lignin and black C turnover observed in terrestrial and aquatic environments. Contradictions in the behavior of lignin are, in part, influenced by inconsistent methodologies among research communities. Even black C, long considered to be one of the most recalcitrant components of OM, is susceptible to biodegradation, challenging predictions of the stability of aromatic structures. At the same time, revised interpretations of radiocarbon data suggest that organic compounds can acquire long mean residence times by various mechanisms independent of their molecular structure. Understanding interactions between environmental conditions and biological reactivity can improve predictions of how disturbance events can further stabilize or destabilize organic C pools, with implications for terrestrial C storage, aquatic C cycling, and climate change.