Early changes in carbon uptake and partitioning moderate belowground carbon storage in a perennial grain

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There is increasing interest in perennial crops to build soil carbon (C), but the mechanisms underlying soil C accrual in perennial croplands remain unclear, especially over time in the first years of perennial crop growth. To address this gap, research is needed that directly tracks intra-annual C fluxes through crop-microbial-soil pools, evaluating the capacity of perennial crops to build soil C over intra-decadal time periods. We conducted a 13C isotope-tracer study to compare within-season C uptake and crop-microbial-soil C partitioning patterns between 1-year-old (IWG-1) and 2-year-old (IWG-2) stands of a novel perennial grain crop, intermediate wheatgrass (IWG; Thinopyrum intermedium (Host) Barkworth and Dewey). We compared these to a common annual grain crop, spring wheat (Triticum aestivum L.). Crop shoots, roots, soil, and soil respired-C were sampled ten times over a 90-day chase period. We also measured the incorporation of recently assimilated 13C into soil microbial biomass (13C PLFA) and functional groups over the first 7 days post-label application. Overall, IWG-1 assimilated almost 1670 mg 13C m−2 during the study period, nearly twice that of IWG-2 or wheat, but neither IWG system retained significant amounts of new C in soil. Rather, a higher proportion of assimilated new C was retained in IWG-1 in root tissues (14%) and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi when compared to other cropping systems, while IWG-2 retained almost 50% of total assimilated C in aboveground crop tissues. We expect the shift from new C retention in belowground root-mycorrhizal networks to aboveground tissues is associated with a shift from an acquisitive to conservative growth strategy that occurs between the first and second IWG production years. The observed shift in C partitioning patterns and potential change in growth strategy limited the allocation and retention of new C in soil as IWG aged, adding valuable context to our understanding of why perennial grain crop establishment seldom leads to significant carbon gains in the first several years following establishment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number109033
JournalAgriculture, Ecosystems and Environment
StatePublished - Aug 15 2024

Bibliographical note

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© 2024 The Authors


  • C tracer
  • Crop-soil interactions
  • Kernza
  • Microbial carbon use
  • Rhizosphere
  • Soil carbon sequestration


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