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Researchers Discover Way to Keep Carbon in the Soil

If you were an ant, you would see that soil has networks of pores and channels that weave through the soil like interconnected straws. They're formed underground by the different minerals that compose soil and as a result of movements or growth by roots, insects, and other living organisms. The pores in soil house gases and liquids, such as soil organic carbon and water.

Soil organic carbon, or SOC, plays a vital role in the carbon cycle. According to a recent study by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), and published in Soil Biology and Biochemistry, the complexity of the carbon differs with the size of the pore that contains it, yet its decomposability is driven by its proximity to microorganisms, not its chemistry. These findings could provide a powerful framework for building a new generation of models simulating SOC dynamics and composition. It also provides a way to use natural processes to protect SOC so that it remains or decomposes in the soil rather than returning to the atmosphere.

In the natural water cycle, the hydrologic connectivity of soil pores surges as soil water content increases, and when pore channels fill with water, SOC and other nutrients can mix and redistribute. And when the soil is saturated, soil pores become increasingly connected (making them straw-like) by water, allowing movement of dissolved SOC between pores. This increases the likelihood that stored carbon will be transported to microbial-rich locations more favorable to decomposition. This diverse distribution of microbial decomposers throughout soil indicates that metabolism or persistence of SOC compounds is highly dependent upon short distances- think "sprints"-of transport between pores, via water, within the soil.

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