Rhizosphere priming effects on soil carbon and nitrogen mineralization

Biao Zhu, Jessica L.M. Gutknecht, Donald J. Herman, Daniel C. Keck, Mary K. Firestone, Weixin Cheng

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288 Scopus citations


Living roots and their rhizodeposits affect microbial activity and soil carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) mineralization. This so-called rhizosphere priming effect (RPE) has been increasingly recognized recently. However, the magnitude of the RPE and its driving mechanisms remain elusive. Here we investigated the RPE of two plant species (soybean and sunflower) grown in two soil types (a farm or a prairie soil) and sampled at two phenological stages (vegetative and mature stages) over an 88-day period in a greenhouse experiment. We measured soil C mineralization using a continuous 13C-labeling method, and quantified gross N mineralization with a 15N-pool dilution technique. We found that living roots significantly enhanced soil C mineralization, by 27-245%. This positive RPE on soil C mineralization did not vary between the two soils or the two phenological stages, but was significantly greater in sunflower compared to soybean. The magnitude of the RPE was positively correlated with rhizosphere respiration rate across all treatments, suggesting the variation of RPE among treatments was likely caused by variations in root activity and rhizodeposit quantity. Moreover, living roots stimulated gross N mineralization rate by 36-62% in five treatments, while they had no significant impact in the other three treatments. We also quantified soil microbial biomass and extracellular enzyme activity when plants were at the vegetative stage. Generally, living roots increased microbial biomass carbon by 0-28%, β-glucosidase activity by 19-56%, and oxidative enzyme activity by 0-46%. These results are consistent with the positive rhizosphere effect on soil C (45-79%) and N (10-52%) mineralization measured at the same period. We also found significant positive relationships between β-glucosidase activity and soil C mineralization rates and between oxidative enzyme activity and gross N mineralization rates across treatments. These relationships provide clear evidence for the microbial activation hypothesis of RPE. Our results demonstrate that root-soil-microbial interactions can stimulate soil C and N mineralization through rhizosphere effects. The relationships between the RPE and rhizosphere respiration rate and soil enzyme activity can be used for explicit representations of RPE in soil organic matter models.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)183-192
Number of pages10
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
StatePublished - Sep 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Jowin Cheung and Ilya Yevdokimov for laboratory assistance, Joy Matthews and Dyke Andreasen for isotope analysis, and an anonymous reviewer for insightful comments on an earlier version of our manuscript. This study was supported by a grant from the National Research Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service ( #2006-35107-17225 ) and a grant from the Division of Environmental Biology of the U.S. National Science Foundation ( #1354659 ).


  • Extracellular enzyme activity
  • Gross nitrogen mineralization
  • Microbial biomass
  • Rhizosphere priming effect
  • Rhizosphere respiration
  • SOM decomposition


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