Legume presence reduces the decomposition rate of non-legume roots

Saar, S.; Semchenko, M.; Barel, J.M.; Deyn, G.B. De


Living plants can enhance litter decomposition rates via a priming effect by releasing root exudates which provide energy to saprotrophic microbes and thereby enable them to degrade litter faster. The strength of this effect, however, is expected to be dependent on the litter properties. To test whether the presence of a growing plant affects the decomposition rate of dead roots with different traits, we used dead roots of seven species (3 grasses, 3 legumes, 1 forb) as litter and quantified litter mass loss after eight weeks of incubation in soil with or without a growing white clover (Trifolium repens) plant. We expected root decomposition to be faster in the presence of T. repens, especially for roots with high C:N ratio. We found that the presence of T. repens slowed down the decomposition of grass and forb roots (negative priming), while it did not significantly affect the decomposition of legume roots. Our results show that root decomposition can be slowed down in the presence of a living plant and that this effect depends on the properties of the decomposing roots, with a pronounced reduction in root litter poor in N and P, but not in the relatively nutrient-rich legume root litters. Negative priming effect of legume plants on non-legume litter decomposition may have resulted from preferential substrate utilisation by soil microbes