Soil Organic Carbon Isotope Tracing in Sorghum under Ambient CO2 and Free-Air CO2 Enrichment (FACE)

Steven W. Leavitt, Li Cheng, David G. Williams, Talbot Brooks, Bruce A. Kimball, Paul J. Pinter, Gerard W. Wall, Michael J. Ottman, Allan D. Matthias, Eldor A. Paul, Thomas L. Thompson, Neal R. Adam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


As atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, [CO2Air ], continue their uncontrolled rise, the capacity of soils to accumulate or retain carbon is uncertain. Free-air CO2 enrichment (FACE) experiments have been conducted to better understand the plant, soil and ecosystem response to elevated [CO2 ], frequently employing commercial CO2 that imparts a distinct isotopic signal to the system for tracing carbon. We conducted a FACE experiment in 1998 and 1999, whereby sorghum (C4 photosynthetic pathway) was grown in four replicates of four treatments using a split-strip plot design: (i) ambient CO2 /ample water (365 µmol mol−1, “Control–Wet”), (ii) ambient CO2 /water stress (“Control–Dry”), (iii) CO2-enriched (560 µmol mol−1, “FACE–Wet”), and (iv) CO2-enriched/water stressed (“FACE–Dry”). The stable-carbon isotope composition of the added CO2 (in FACE treatments) was close to that of free atmosphere background values, so the subsequent similar13 C-enriched carbon signal photosynthetically fixed by C4 sorghum plants could be used to trace the fate of carbon in both FACE and control treatments. Measurement of soil organic carbon content (SOC (%) = gC/ gdry soil × 100%) and δ13 C at three depths (0–15, 15–30, and 30–60 cm) were made on soils from the beginning and end of the two experimental growing seasons. A progressive ca. 0.5‰–1.0‰ δ13 C increase in the upper soil SOC in all treatments over the course of the experiment indicated common entry of new sorghum carbon into the SOC pools. The 0–15 cm SOC in FACE treatments was13 C-enriched relative to the Control by ca. 1‰, and according to isotopic mass balance, the fraction of the new sorghum-derived SOC in the Control–Wet treatment at the end of the second season was 8.4%, 14.2% in FACE–Wet, 6.5% in Control–Dry, and 14.2% in FACE–Dry. The net SOC enhancement resulting from CO2 enrichment was therefore 5.8% (or 2.9% y−1 of experiment) under ample water and 7.7% (3.8% y−1 of experiment) under limited water, which matches the pattern of greater aboveground biomass increase with elevated [CO2Air ] under the Dry treatment, but no parallel isotopic shifts were found in deeper soils. However, these increased fractions of new carbon in SOC at the end of the experiment do not necessarily mean an increase in total SOC content, because gravimetric measurements of SOC did not reveal a significant increase under elevated [CO2Air ], at least within the limits of SOC-content error bars. Thus, new carbon gains might be offset by pre-experiment carbon losses. The results demonstrate successful isotopic tracing of carbon from plants to soils in this sorghum FACE experiment showing differences between FACE and Control treatments, which suggest more dynamic cycling of SOC under elevated [CO2Air ] than in the Control treatment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number309
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2022


  • CO fertilization
  • Carbon isotopes
  • Carbon sequestration
  • FACE
  • Soil carbon
  • Sorghum

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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