2020 journal article
Volatile organic compounds from leaf litter decomposition alter soil microbial communities and carbon dynamics
Abstract Investigations into the transfer of carbon from plant litter to underlying soil horizons have primarily focused on the leaching of soluble carbon from litter belowground or the mixing of litter directly into soil. However, previous work has largely ignored the role of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released during litter decomposition. Unlike most leaf carbon, these litter‐derived VOCs are able to diffuse directly into the soil matrix. Here, we used a 99‐d microcosm experiment to track VOCs produced during microbial decomposition of 13 C‐labeled leaf litter into soil carbon fractions where the decomposing litters were only sharing headspace with the soil samples, thus preventing direct contact and aqueous movement of litter carbon. We also determined the effects of these litter‐derived VOCs on soil microbial community structure. We demonstrated that the litter VOCs contributed to all measured soil carbon pools. Specifically, VOC‐derived carbon accounted for 2.0, 0.61, 0.18, and 0.08% of carbon in the microbial biomass, dissolved organic matter, mineral‐associated organic matter, and particulate organic matter pools, respectively. We also show that litter‐derived VOCs can affect soil bacterial and fungal community diversity and composition. These findings highlight the importance of an underappreciated pathway where VOCs alter soil microbial communities and carbon dynamics.