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Oecologia. 2010 Jun;163(2):509-15. doi: 10.1007/s00442-009-1541-4. Epub 2010 Jan 8.

Slow decomposition of lower order roots: a key mechanism of root carbon and nutrient retention in the soil.

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Department of Ecology, College of Urban and Environmental Sciences, Peking University, 100871, Beijing, China.


Among tree fine roots, the distal small-diameter lateral branches comprising first- and second-order roots lack secondary (wood) development. Therefore, these roots are expected to decompose more rapidly than higher order woody roots. But this prediction has not been tested and may not be correct. Current evidence suggests that lower order roots may decompose more slowly than higher order roots in tree species associated with ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungi because they are preferentially colonized by fungi and encased by a fungal sheath rich in chitin (a recalcitrant compound). In trees associated with arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi, lower order roots do not form fungal sheaths, but they may have poorer C quality, e.g. lower concentrations of soluble carbohydrates and higher concentrations of acid-insolubles than higher order roots, thus may decompose more slowly. In addition, litter with high concentrations of acid insolubles decomposes more slowly under higher N concentrations (such as lower order roots). Therefore, we propose that in both AM and EM trees, lower order roots decompose more slowly than higher order roots due to the combination of poor C quality and high N concentrations. To test this hypothesis, we examined decomposition of the first six root orders in Fraxinus mandshurica (an AM species) and Larix gmelinii (an EM species) using litterbag method in northeastern China. We found that lower order roots of both species decomposed more slowly than higher order roots, and this pattern appears to be associated mainly with initial C quality and N concentrations. Because these lower order roots have short life spans and thus dominate root mortality, their slow decomposition implies that a substantial fraction of the stable soil organic matter pool is derived from these lower order roots, at least in the two species we studied.

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