The soil microbial carbon pump: From conceptual insights to empirical assessments

Xuefeng Zhu, Randall D. Jackson, Evan H. DeLucia, James M. Tiedje, Chao Liang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The global soil carbon (C) pool is massive, so relatively small changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks can significantly alter atmospheric C and global climate. The recently proposed concept of the soil microbial carbon pump (MCP) emphasizes the active role of soil microbes in SOC storage by integrating the continual microbial transformation of organic C from labile to persistent anabolic forms. However, the concept has not been evaluated with data. Here, we combine datasets, including microbial necromass biomarker amino sugars and SOC, from two long-term agricultural field studies conducted by large United States bioenergy research programs. We interrogate the soil MCP concept by investigating the asynchronous responses of microbial necromass and SOC to land-use change. Microbial necromass appeared to preferentially accumulate in soil and be the dominant contributor to SOC accrual in diversified perennial bioenergy crops. Specifically, ~92% of the additional SOC enhanced by plant diversity was estimated to be microbial necromass C, and >76% of the additional SOC enhanced by land-use transition from annual to perennial crops was estimated to be microbial necromass. This suggests that the soil MCP was stimulated in diversified perennial agroecosystems. We further delineate and suggest two parameters—soil MCP capacity and efficacy—reflecting the conversion of plant C into microbial necromass and the contribution of microbial necromass to SOC, respectively, that should serve as valuable metrics for future studies evaluating SOC storage under alternative management in changing climates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6032-6039
Number of pages8
JournalGlobal change biology
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020


  • MCP capacity
  • MCP efficacy
  • amino sugars
  • bioenergy cropping systems
  • microbial necromass
  • soil organic carbon

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Ecology
  • Environmental Science(all)

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