Possible source of ancient carbon in phytolith concentrates from harvested grasses
Plants absorb and transport silicon (Si) from soil, and precipitation of Si within the living plants results in micrometric amorphous biosilica particles known as phytoliths. During phytolith formation, a small amount of carbon (<2%) can become occluded in the silica structure (phytC) and therefore protected from degradation by the environment after plant tissue decomposition. Since the major C source within plants is from atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO 2) via photosynthesis, the current understanding is that the radiocarbon ( 14C) content of phytC should reflect the 14C content of atmospheric CO 2 at the time the plant is growing. This assumption was recently challenged by 14C data from phytoliths extracted from living grasses that yielded ages of several thousand years (2–8 kyr BP; in radiocarbon years "Before Present" (BP), "Present" being defined as 1950). Because plants can take up small amounts of C of varying ages from soils (e.g., during nutrient acquisition), we hypothesized that this transported C within the plant tissue could be attached to or even embedded in phytoliths. In this work, we explore this hypothesis by reviewing previously published data on biosilica mineralization and plant nutrient acquisition as well as by evaluating the efficiency of phytolith extraction protocols from scanning electron microscope (SEM) images and energy dispersive spectrometer (EDS) analyses from harvested grasses phytolith concentrates. We show that current extraction protocols are inefficient since they do not entirely remove recalcitrant forms of C from plant tissue. Consequently, material previously measured as "phytC" may contain at least some fraction of soil-derived C (likely radiocarbon-old) taken up by roots. We also suggest a novel interpretation for at least some of the phytC – which enters via the root pathway during nutrient acquisition – that may help to explain the old ages previously obtained from phytolith concentrates.