Contrasting dynamics and trait controls in first-order root compared with leaf litter decomposition

Tao Sun, Sarah E. Hobbie, Björn Berg, Hongguang Zhang, Qingkui Wang, Zhengwen Wang, Stephan Hättenschwiler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Decomposition is a key component of the global carbon (C) cycle, yet current ecosystem C models do not adequately represent the contributions of plant roots and their mycorrhizae to this process. The understanding of decomposition dynamics and their control by traits is particularly limited for the most distal first-order roots. Here we followed decomposition of first-order roots and leaf litter from 35 woody plant species differing in mycorrhizal type over 6 years in a Chinese temperate forest. First-order roots decomposed more slowly (k = 0.11 ± 0.01 years−1) than did leaf litter (0.35 ± 0.02 years−1), losing only 35% of initial mass on average after 6 years of exposure in the field. In contrast to leaf litter, nonlignin root C chemistry (nonstructural carbohydrates, polyphenols) accounted for 82% of the large interspecific variation in first-order root decomposition. Leaf litter from ectomycorrhizal (EM) species decomposed more slowly than that from arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) species, whereas first-order roots of EM species switched, after 2 years, from having slower to faster decomposition compared with those from AM species. The fundamentally different dynamics and control mechanisms of first-order root decomposition compared with those of leaf litter challenge current ecosystem C models, the recently suggested dichotomy between EM and AM plants, and the idea that common traits can predict decomposition across roots and leaves. Aspects of C chemistry unrelated to lignin or nitrogen, and not presently considered in decomposition models, controlled first-order root decomposition; thus, current paradigms of ecosystem C dynamics and model pa-rameterization require revision.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)10392-10397
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number41
StatePublished - Oct 9 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. We thank M. Luke McCormack and Richard P. Phillips for comments on previous versions of the manuscript, and Josep Padulles Cubino for his advice on and help with the phylogenetic analyses. The funding for this research was supported by the State Key Program of China (Grants 2016YFD0300904 and 2016YFA0600800), Natural Science Foundation of China (Grants 31500361 and 31830015), and Key Research Program of Frontier Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant QYZDB-SSW-DQC002).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 National Academy of Sciences. All Rights Reserved.


  • Long-term decomposition
  • Mycorrhizal fungi
  • Plant-soil interactions
  • Root tips
  • Trait coordination


Dive into the research topics of 'Contrasting dynamics and trait controls in first-order root compared with leaf litter decomposition'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this