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Tree Physiol. 2010 Dec;30(12):1515-27. doi: 10.1093/treephys/tpq090. Epub 2010 Nov 12.

Incorporation and remobilization of ¹³C within the fine-root systems of individual Abies alba trees in a temperate coniferous stand.

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Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Zuercherstrasse 111, 8903 Birmensdorf, Switzerland.


Forest ecosystems have a large carbon (C) storage capacity, which depends on their productivity and the residence time of C. Therefore, the time interval between C assimilation and its return to the atmosphere is an important parameter for determining C storage. Especially fine roots (≤2 mm in diameter) undergo constant replacement and provide a large biomass input to the soil. In this study, we aimed to determine the residence time of C in living fine roots and the decomposition rates of dead fine roots. Therefore, we pulse-labelled nine 20-year-old individual silver fir trees (Abies alba Miller; ∼70 cm tall) with ¹³CO₂ in situ to trace the assimilated C over time into the fine-root systems. Whole trees were harvested at different time points after labelling in autumn, biomass was determined and cellulose and starch of fine roots were extracted. Moreover, soil cores were taken and ingrowth cores installed, in which fine roots were genetically identified, to assess incorporation and remobilization of ¹³C in the fine roots of silver fir trees; litterbags were used to determine fine-root decomposition rates. The ¹³C label was incorporated in the fine-root system as cellulose within 3 days, with highest values after 30 days, before reaching background levels after 1 year. The highest δ¹³C values were found in starch throughout the experiment. ¹³C recovery and carbon mean residence times did not differ significantly among fine-root diameter classes, indicating size-independent C turnover times in fine roots of A. alba trees of ∼219 days. Furthermore, carbon was remobilized from starch into newly grown fine roots in the next spring after our autumn labelling. One year after installation, litterbags with fine roots revealed a decrease of biomass of ∼40% with relative ¹³C content in fine-root bulk biomass and cellulose of ∼50%, indicating a faster loss of ¹³C-labelled compounds compared with bulk biomass. Our results also suggest that genetic analysis of fine-root fragments found in soil and ingrowth cores is advisable when working in mixed forest stands with trees of similar fine-root morphology. Only then can one avoid dilution of the labelling signal by mistake, due to analysis of non-labelled non-target species roots.

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