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Understanding how soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere

In the intricate dance of carbon within our planet’s ecosystems, soil plays a pivotal role as both a guardian and a gatekeeper. It’s here, amidst the grains of earth, that carbon molecules derived from plants face a critical decision.

The carbon can remain ensconced within the soil, thus sequestered from the atmosphere for extended periods, or become fuel for microbes, subsequently releasing carbon dioxide into our warming world.

Understanding this fork in the road is crucial for devising strategies to mitigate climate change.

Illuminating the secrets of soil

Researchers from Northwestern University have embarked on a journey to decipher the mechanisms that determine the fate of plant-based organic matter in soil.

Through a blend of laboratory experiments and molecular modeling, they’ve shed light on the intricate dynamics between organic carbon biomolecules and clay minerals.

These are a key player in the soil’s ability to trap carbon. Their critical work opens new avenues for enhancing soil’s capacity to serve as a carbon sink.

Ludmilla Aristilde, the study’s senior author and an associate professor at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, emphasized the global significance of soil’s carbon storage potential.

“The amount of organic carbon stored in soil is about ten times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere,” said Aristilde.

With soil holding approximately 2,500 billion tons of carbon, ten times the amount present in the atmosphere, even minor perturbations could have profound implications.

Aristilde explained further, “If this enormous reservoir is perturbed, it would have substantial ripple effects. There are many efforts to keep carbon trapped to prevent it from entering the atmosphere. If we want to do that, then we first must understand the mechanisms at play.”

Soil’s carbon-trapping mechanisms

Aristilde, alongside Ph.D. student Jiaxing Wang and undergraduate Rebecca Wilson, delved into the interactions between smectite clay — a mineral renowned for its carbon sequestration abilities — and a variety of biomolecules, including amino acids, sugars, and phenolic acids.

“We decided to study this clay mineral because it’s everywhere,” Aristilde said. “Nearly all soils have clay minerals. Also, clays are prevalent in semi-arid and temperate climates — regions that we know will be affected by climate change.”

Their findings reveal that the fate of carbon in soil is influenced by a complex interplay of factors.

Electrostatic charges, the structural attributes of carbon molecules, surrounding metal nutrients, and the competitive dynamics among molecules all contribute to soil’s carbon-trapping efficiency.

Remarkably, the study highlights the role of naturally occurring metal nutrients, such as magnesium and calcium, in facilitating bonds between negatively charged biomolecules and clay minerals, thereby enhancing carbon sequestration.

Soil, carbon, and climate change mitigation

This research advances our understanding of soil chemistry and offers a blueprint for identifying soil compositions most conducive to carbon trapping.

Such insights are invaluable for developing soil-based strategies to slow the pace of human-induced climate change. Aristilde’s team’s exploration extends beyond the individual interactions between biomolecules and clay minerals.

By simulating real-world conditions through experiments with mixed biomolecules, they uncovered surprising behaviors that challenge previous assumptions about molecular competition on clay surfaces.

“We know different types of biomolecules in the environment exists together,” Aristilde said. “So, we also performed experiments with a mixture of biomolecules.”

This nuanced understanding of molecular interactions in soil could revolutionize our approach to managing soil carbon storage, with implications for climate change mitigation efforts worldwide.

“This has not been shown before,” Aristilde said. “The energy of attraction between two biomolecules was actually higher than the energy of attraction of a biomolecule to the clay. That led to a decrease in adsorption. It changes the way we think about how molecules compete on the surface. They aren’t just competing for binding sites on the surface. They can actually attract each other.”

Expanding horizons in soil research

In summary, this crucial study illuminates the pivotal role of soil in the global carbon cycle, delving into the mechanisms of carbon sequestration in soil.

By uncovering the complex interactions between organic carbon biomolecules and clay minerals, the scientists offer critical insights into enhancing soil’s capacity to act as a carbon sink, thereby presenting a promising avenue for combating climate change.

The findings, which emphasize the significance of electrostatic charges, molecular structures, and metal nutrients, advance our understanding of soil chemistry and offer ideas for developing effective soil-based strategies to mitigate the impacts of human-induced climate change.

Aristilde and his team have made a significant contribution to our collective efforts to preserve the environment for future generations.

The full study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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