© 2015 Macmillan Publishers Limited. Multiple lines of existing evidence suggest that climate change enhances root exudation of organic compounds into soils. Recent experimental studies show that increased exudate inputs may cause a net loss of soil carbon. This stimulation of microbial carbon mineralization ('priming') is commonly rationalized by the assumption that exudates provide a readily bioavailable supply of energy for the decomposition of native soil carbon (co-metabolism). Here we show that an alternate mechanism can cause carbon loss of equal or greater magnitude. We find that a common root exudate, oxalic acid, promotes carbon loss by liberating organic compounds from protective associations with minerals. By enhancing microbial access to previously mineral-protected compounds, this indirect mechanism accelerated carbon loss more than simply increasing the supply of energetically more favourable substrates. Our results provide insights into the coupled biotic-abiotic mechanisms underlying the 'priming'phenomenon and challenge the assumption that mineral-associated carbon is protected from microbial cycling over millennial timescales.