Monday, March 4, 2024
Monday, March 4, 2024
HomeScienceUnderstanding how soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere

Understanding how soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere


In the intricate dance of carbon within our planet’s ecosystems, soil plays a critical role as guardian and custodian. It is here, between grains of soil, that plant-derived carbon molecules face a critical decision.

Carbon can remain hidden in the soil, thus sequestered from the atmosphere for long periods, or become fuel for microbes, subsequently releasing carbon dioxide into our warming world.

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

Illuminating the secrets of the soil

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

Through a combination of laboratory experiments and molecular modeling, they have 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 fundamental work opens new avenues to improve soil’s ability to serve as a carbon sink.

ludmilla aristildelead author of the study and associate professor at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, emphasized the global importance of soil carbon storage potential.

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

Given that the soil contains approximately 2.5 billion tons of carbon, ten times the amount present in the atmosphere, even minor disturbances could have profound implications.

Aristilde explained further: “If this huge deposit is disturbed, there would be significant domino effects. Many efforts are being made to keep carbon trapped and prevent it from entering the atmosphere. “If we want to do that, we must first understand the mechanisms at play.”

Soil carbon sequestration mechanisms

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

“We decided to study this clay mineral because it is everywhere,” Aristilde said. “Almost all soils have clay minerals. Additionally, 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 interaction of factors.

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

Surprisingly, the study highlights the role of natural 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 plan to identify soil compositions most conducive to carbon sequestration.

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

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

“We know that different types of biomolecules in the environment coexist,” 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 around the world.

“This has not been demonstrated before,” Aristilde said. “The energy of attraction between two biomolecules was actually greater than the energy of attraction of a biomolecule toward the clay. This led to a decrease in adsorption. It changes the way we think about how molecules compete on the surface. They not only compete for binding sites on the surface. In fact, they can attract each other.”

Broadening horizons in soil research

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

By uncovering the complex interactions between organic carbon biomolecules and clay minerals, scientists are providing critical insights to improve soil’s ability to act as a carbon sink, thus presenting a promising avenue to combat climate change.

The findings, which emphasize the importance of electrostatic charges, molecular structures and metal nutrients, improve 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 her 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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