Plant roots and GHG mitigation in native perennial bioenergy cropping systems

Jacob M. Jungers, James O. Eckberg, Kevin Betts, Margaret E. Mangan, Donald L. Wyse, Craig C. Sheaffer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Native perennial bioenergy crops can mitigate greenhouse gases (GHG) by displacing fossil fuels with renewable energy and sequestering atmospheric carbon (C) in soil and roots. The relative contribution of root C to net GHG mitigation potential has not been compared in perennial bioenergy crops ranging in species diversity and N fertility. We measured root biomass, C, nitrogen (N), and soil organic carbon (SOC) in the upper 90 cm of soil for five native perennial bioenergy crops managed with and without N fertilizer. Bioenergy crops ranged in species composition and were annually harvested for 6 (one location) and 7 years (three locations) following the seeding year. Total root biomass was 84% greater in switchgrass (Panicum virgatum L.) and a four-species grass polyculture compared to high-diversity polycultures; the difference was driven by more biomass at shallow soil depth (0–30 cm). Total root C (0–90 cm) ranged from 3.7 Mg C ha−1 for a 12-species mixture to 7.6 Mg C ha−1 for switchgrass. On average, standing root C accounted for 41% of net GHG mitigation potential. After accounting for farm and ethanol production emissions, net GHG mitigation potential from fossil fuel offsets and root C was greatest for switchgrass (−8.4 Mg CO2e ha−1 yr−1) and lowest for high-diversity mixtures (−4.5 Mg CO2e ha−1 yr−1). Nitrogen fertilizer did not affect net GHG mitigation potential or the contribution of roots to GHG mitigation for any bioenergy crop. SOC did not change and therefore did not contribute to GHG mitigation potential. However, associations among SOC, root biomass, and root C : N ratio suggest greater long-term C storage in diverse polycultures vs. switchgrass. Carbon pools in roots have a greater effect on net GHG mitigation than SOC in the short-term, yet variation in root characteristics may alter patterns in long-term C storage among bioenergy crops.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)326-338
Number of pages13
JournalGCB Bioenergy
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This project was funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the University of Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. We thank Joshua Larson, Antonio Airton Lima Serra Jr., and Glen Bengtson for their help with this study.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2016 The Authors. Global Change Biology Bioenergy Published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • biofuel
  • carbon sequestration
  • diversity
  • greenhouse gases
  • prairie
  • species richness
  • switchgrass


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