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Earthworms Working Overtime to Sequester Plant-Derived Carbon

Reference
Sanchez-de-Leon, Y., Lugo-Perez, J., Wise, D.H., Jastrow, J.D. and Gonzalez-Meler, M.A. 2014. Aggregate formation and carbon sequestration by earthworms in soil from a temperate forest exposed to elevated atmospheric CO2: A microcosm experiment. Soil Biology & Biochemistry 68: 223-230.
In the words of Sanchez-de-Leon et al. (2014), "the physical protection of carbon in soil aggregates is a key mechanism affecting soil carbon dynamics (e.g. Tisdall and Oades, 1982; Six et al., 2004; Blanco-Canqui and Lal, 2004; Jastrow et al., 2007)," noting in this regard that "stabilization of soil organic carbon (SOC) in aggregates decreases its accessibility to microbes and soil fauna," thereby protecting SOC from rapid mineralization and increasing its in-soil residence time (Sollins et al., 1996; Marinissen and Hillenaar, 1997; Jastrow et al., 2007).

As their contribution to the subject, the authors "conducted a 26-day laboratory incubation experiment using plant and soil materials with differential dual isotopic compositions obtained from different CO2 and 15N-labeling treatments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) FACE [Free-Air CO2 Enrichment] site," where they "used crushed and sieved unlabeled soil to create four treatments: (I) soil only; (II) soil and plant material; (III) soil, plant material and the native, endogeic earthworm Diplocardia sp.; (IV) soil, plant material, and the European, epiendogeic earthworm Lumbricus rubellus," where the added plant materials consisted of both sweetgum (L. styraciflua) leaf and root litter.

In discussing their findings, the five U.S. researchers report (1) "overall, earthworms increased the mass of newly formed soil macro-aggregates," (2) "most of the carbon within macro-aggregates was soil-derived," and (3) "leaf- and root-derived carbon was found only in the treatment with L. rubellus." And so they determined that "the source of carbon within macro-aggregates paralleled earthworm feeding ecologies, with endogeic earthworms feeding mostly on soil organic matter and epi-endogeic earthworms feeding on both plant residues and soil organic matter."

Sanchez-de-Leon et al. conclude by stating "earthworms at the ORNL-FACE site directly contribute to the formation of soil aggregates and could be an important factor contributing to the soil stabilization of increased recent carbon inputs resulting from atmospheric CO2 enrichment," one of the significant consequences of which is to slightly reduce the rate at which the air's CO2 content continues to rise.

Additional References
Blanco-Canqui, H. and Lal, R. 2004. Mechanisms of carbon sequestration in soil aggregates. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 23: 481-504.

Jastrow, J.D., Amonette, J.E. and Bailey, V.L. 2007. Mechanisms controlling soil carbon turnover and their potential application for enhancing carbon sequestration. Climatic Change 80: 5-23.

Marinissen, J.C.Y. and Hillenaar, S.I. 1997. Earthworm-induced distribution of organic matter in macro-aggregates from differently managed arable fields. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 29: 391-395.

Six, J., Bossuyt, H., Degryze, S. and Denef, K. 2004. A history of research on the link between (micro)aggregates, soil biota, and soil organic matter dynamics. Soil Tillage Research 79: 7-31.

Sollins, P., Homann, P. and Caldwell, B.A. 1996. Stabilization and destabilization of soil organic matter: mechanisms and controls. Geoderma 74: 65-105.

Tisdall, J.M. and Oades, J.M. 1982. Organic matter and water-stable aggregates in soils. Journal of Soil Science 33: 141-163.

Archived 9 April 2014