Solar radiation uncorks the lignin bottleneck on plant litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems
Friday, 18 December 2015
Poster Hall (Moscone South)
Plant litter decomposition is an essential process in the first stages of carbon and nutrient turnover in terrestrial ecosystems, and together with soil microbial biomass, provide the principal inputs of carbon for the formation of soil organic matter. Photodegradation, the photochemical mineralization of organic matter, has been recently identified as a mechanism for previously unexplained high rates of litter mass loss in low rainfall ecosystems; however, the generality of this process as a control on carbon cycling in terrestrial ecosystems is not known, and the indirect effects of photodegradation on biotic stimulation of carbon turnover have been debated in recent studies. We demonstrate that in a wide range of plant species, previous exposure to solar radiation, and visible light in particular, enhanced subsequent biotic degradation of leaf litter. Moreover, we demonstrate that the mechanism for this enhancement involves increased accessibility for microbial enzymes to plant litter carbohydrates due to a reduction in lignin content. Photodegradation of plant litter reduces the structural and chemical bottleneck imposed by lignin in secondary cell walls. In litter from woody plant species, specific interactions with ultraviolet radiation obscured facilitative effects of solar radiation on biotic decomposition. The generalized positive effect of solar radiation exposure on subsequent microbial activity is mediated by increased accessibility to cell wall polysaccharides, which suggests that photodegradation is quantitatively important in determining rates of mass loss, nutrient release and the carbon balance in a broad range of terrestrial ecosystems.