Irreconcilable differences: Fine-root life spans and soil carbon persistence

Micheal A. Davis, University of Southern Mississippi


The residence time of fine- root carbon in soil is one of the least understood aspects of the global carbon cycle, and fine- root dynamics are one of the least understood aspects of plant function. Most recent studies of these belowground dynamics have used one of two methodological strategies. In one approach, based on analysis of carbon isotopes, the persistence of carbon is inferred; in the other, based on direct observations of roots with cameras, the longevity of individual roots is measured. We show that the contribution of fine roots to the global carbon cycle has been overstated because observations of root lifetimes systematically overestimate the turnover of fine- root biomass. On the other hand, isotopic techniques systematically underestimate the turnover of individual roots. These differences, by virtue of the separate processes or pools measured, are irreconcilable.