Cover crop functional types differentially alter the content and composition of soil organic carbon in particulate and mineral-associated fractions

Ziliang Zhang, Jason P. Kaye, Brosi A. Bradley, Joseph P. Amsili, Vidya Suseela

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Cover crops (CCs) can increase soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration by providing additional OC residues, recruiting beneficial soil microbiota, and improving soil aggregation and structure. The various CC species that belong to distinct plant functional types (PFTs) may differentially impact SOC formation and stabilization. Biogeochemical theory suggests that selection of PFTs with distinct litter quality (C:N ratio) should influence the pathways and magnitude of SOC sequestration. Yet, we lack knowledge on the effect of CCs from different PFTs on the quantity and composition of physiochemical pools of SOC. We sampled soils under monocultures of three CC PFTs (legume [crimson clover]; grass [triticale]; and brassica [canola]) and a mixture of these three species, from a long-term CC experiment in Pennsylvania, USA. We measured C content in bulk soil and C content and composition in contrasting physical fractions: particulate organic matter, POM; and mineral-associated organic matter, MAOM. The bulk SOC content was higher in all CC treatments compared to the fallow. Compared to the legume, monocultures of grass and brassica with lower litter quality (wider C:N) had higher proportion of plant-derived C in POM, indicating selective preservation of complex structural plant compounds. In contrast, soils under legumes had greater accumulation of microbial-derived C in MAOM. Our results for the first time, revealed that the mixture contributed to a higher concentration of plant-derived compounds in POM relative to the legume, and a greater accumulation of microbial-derived C in MAOM compared to monocultures of grass and brassica. Mixtures with all three PFTs can thus increase the short- and long-term SOC persistence balancing the contrasting effects on the chemistries in POM and MAOM imposed by monoculture CC PFTs. Thus, despite different cumulative C inputs in CC treatments from different PFTs, the total SOC stocks did not vary between CC PFTs, rather PFTs impacted whether C accumulated in POM or MAOM fractions. This highlights that CCs of different PFTs may shift the dominant SOC formation pathways (POM vs. MAOM), subsequently impacting short- and long-term SOC stabilization and stocks. Our work provides a strong applied field test of biogeochemical theory linking litter quality to pathways of C accrual in soil.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5831-5848
Number of pages18
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number19
StatePublished - Oct 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • General Environmental Science


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