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5 - Litter decomposition: concepts, methods and future perspectives

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 May 2010

Werner L. Kutsch
Max-Planck-Institut für Biogeochemie, Jena
Michael Bahn
Leopold-Franzens-Universität Innsbruck, Austria
Andreas Heinemeyer
Stockholm Environmental Institute, University of York
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Litter decomposition is defined as the process through which dead organic material is broken down into particles of progressively smaller size, until the structure can no longer be recognized, and organic molecules are mineralized to their prime constituents: H2O, CO2 and mineral components. During the process, recalcitrant organic compounds are formed and dissolved organic carbon may be leached to the mineral soil. It is also universally recognized that there are three main processes through which decomposition occurs: (1) leaching of soluble compounds into the soil, (2) fragmentation of litter into smaller sizes and (3) catabolism by decomposer organisms (i.e. micro-organisms and fauna). Swift et al. (1979), presented the triangle (POQ), representing individual and interacting factors influencing litter decomposition: i.e. P for the physical–chemical environment; O for decomposer organisms and Q for resource quality (Fig. 5.1).

This definition and understanding, so clearly stated, has guided research on litter decomposition for the past decades, which has been devoted mainly to:

  1. quantify rates of litter decay

  2. develop mathematical models that better represent decay dynamics

  3. identify litter quality factors that control decay rates, and eventually the equation defining the relationship

  4. determine dynamics of nutrients and carbon-based compounds during litter decay

  5. identify climatic factors that control decay, and eventually the equation defining the relationship

  6. identify the interdependence between litter quality and climate

  7. evaluate the role of soil organisms.

Soil Carbon Dynamics
An Integrated Methodology
, pp. 76 - 90
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2010

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To send content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Available formats

Send book to Google Drive

To send content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Available formats