Microbial decomposition of soil organic matter is mediated by quality and quantity of crop residues: mechanisms and thresholds

Muhammad Shahbaz, Yakov Kuzyakov, Muhammad Sanaullah, Felix Heitkamp, Vladimir Zelenev, Amit Kumar, Evgenia Blagodatskaya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

214 Citations (Scopus)


Crop residue quality and quantity have contrasting effects on soil organic matter (SOM) decomposition, but the mechanisms explaining such priming effect (PE) are still elusive. To reveal the role of residue quality and quantity in SOM priming, we applied two rates (5.4–10.8 g kg−1) of 13C-labeled wheat residues (separately: leaves, stems, roots) to soil and incubated for 120 days. To distinguish PE mechanisms, labeled C was traced in CO2 efflux and in microbial biomass and enzyme activities (involved in C, N, and P cycles) were measured during the incubation period. Regardless of residue type, PE intensity declined with increasing C additions. Roots were least mineralized but caused up to 60% higher PE compared to leaves or stems. During intensive residue mineralization (first 2–3 weeks), the low or negative PE resulted from pool substitution. Thereafter (15–60 days), a large decline in microbial biomass along with increased enzyme activity suggested that microbial necromass served as SOM primer. Finally, incorporation of SOM-derived C into remaining microbial biomass corresponded to increased enzyme activity, which is indicative of SOM cometabolism. Both PE and enzyme activities were primarily correlated with residue-metabolizing soil microorganisms. A unifying model demonstrated that PE was a function of residue mineralization, with thresholds for strong PE increase of up to 20% root, 44% stem, and 51% leaf mineralization. Thus, root mineralization has the lowest threshold for a strong PE increase. Our study emphasizes the role of residue-feeding microorganisms as active players in the PE, which are mediated by quality and quantity of crop residue additions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)287-301
Number of pages15
JournalBiology and Fertility of Soils
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Apr 1 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • C-labeled crop residues
  • Enzyme activities
  • Litter quality
  • Microbial necromass
  • Priming effect
  • Soil organic matter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Soil Science


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