Soil organic matter dynamics under different land use in grasslands in Inner Mongolia (northern China)
We examined bulk soil properties and molecular biomarker distributions in surface soils from Inner Mongolian grasslands in order to understand the responses of soil organic matter to different land use. A total of 16 soils were collected from severely degraded grassland by overgrazing (DG), native grassland without apparent anthropogenic disturbance (NG), groundwater-sustaining grassland (GG) and restored grassland from previous potato cropland (RG). Compared to NG, soil organic carbon content was lower by 50% in DG, but higher by six-fold in GG and one-fold in RG. The δ 13C values of soil organic carbon were –24.2 ± 0.6‰ in DG, –24.9 ± 0.6‰ in NG, –25.1 ± 0.1‰ in RG and –26.2 ± 0.6‰ in GG, reflecting different degradation degrees of soil organic matter or different water use efficiencies. The soils in DG contained the lowest abundance of aliphatic lipids (n-alkanes, n-alkanols, n-alkanoic acids, ω-hydroxylalkanoic acids and α-hydroxyalkanoic acids) and lignin-phenols, suggesting selective removal of these biochemically recalcitrant biomarkers with grassland degradation by microbial respiration or wind erosion. Compared to NG, the soils in GG and RG increased ω-hydroxylalkanoic acids by 60–70%, a biomarker for suberin from roots, and increased α-hydroxylalkanoic acids by 10–20%, a biomarker for both cutin and suberin. Our results demonstrate that the groundwater supply and cultivation–restoration practices in Inner Mongolian grasslands not only enhance soil organic carbon sequestration, but also change the proportions of shoot- versus root-derived carbon in soils. This finding has important implications for the global carbon cycle since root-derived aliphatic carbon has a longer residence time than the aboveground tissue-derived carbon in soils.