Combined use of empirical data and mathematical modelling to better estimate the microbial turnover of isotopically labelled carbon substrates in soil

H. C. Glanville, P. W. Hill, A. Schnepf, E. Oburger, D. L. Jones

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

53 Citations (Scopus)


The flow of carbon (C) through soil is inherently complex due to the many thousands of different chemical transformations occurring simultaneously within the soil microbial community. The accurate modelling of this C flow therefore represents a major challenge. In response to this, isotopic tracers (e.g. 13C, 14C) are commonly used to experimentally parameterise models describing the fate and residence time of individual C compounds within soil. In this study, we critically evaluated the combined use of experimental 14C labelling and mathematical modelling to estimate C turnover times in soil. We applied 14C-labelled alanine and glucose to an agricultural soil and simultaneously measured their loss from soil solution alongside the rate of microbial C immobilization and mineralization. Our results revealed that chloroform fumigation-extraction (CFE) cannot be used to reliably quantify the amount of isotopically labelled 13C/14C immobilised by the microbial biomass. This is due to uncertainty in the extraction efficiency values (kec) within the CFE methodology which are both substrate and incubation time dependent. Further, the traditional mineralization approach (i.e. measuring 14/13CO2 evolution) provided a poor estimate of substrate loss from soil solution and mainly reflected rates of internal microbial C metabolism after substrate uptake from the soil. Therefore, while isotope addition provides a simple mechanism for labelling the microbial biomass it provides limited information on the behaviour of the substrate itself. We used our experimental data to construct a new empirical model to describe the simultaneous flow of substrate-C between key C pools in soil. This model provided a superior estimate of microbial substrate use and microbial respiration flux in comparison to traditional first order kinetic modelling approaches. We also identify a range of fundamental problems associated with the modelling of isotopic-C in soil, including issues with variation in C partitioning within the community, model pool connectivity and variation in isotopic pool dilution, which make interpretation of any C isotopic flux data difficult. We conclude that while convenient, the use of isotopic data (13C, 14C, 15N) has many potential pitfalls necessitating a critical evaluation of both past and future studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)154-168
Number of pages15
JournalSoil Biology and Biochemistry
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2016
Externally publishedYes


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