N isotope fractionation and measures of organic matter alteration during decomposition

Marc G. Kramer, Phillip Sollins, Ronald S. Sletten, Peter K. Swart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

157 Scopus citations


Most soil organic matter (SOM) derives from plant material, but there are substantial gaps in our understanding of its transformation mechanisms. Alterations that occur as SOM decays and is stabilized have proved difficult to study owing largely to its diverse initial chemical composition and stable isotope values. We examined SOM stable isotope ratios in relation to composition using solid-state 13C Cross Polarization Magic Angle Spin (CPMAS) nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) in sequentially deeper organic and mineral horizon soil samples collected from an unpolluted ecosystem in southeast Alaska, USA, dominated by C3 vegetation. We found that, as humified carbon (C not respired as CO2 during decomposition) increased in aliphaticity (ratio of unsubstituted aliphatics to carbohydrates), it also increased in 13N but showed no clear trend in 13C. These results imply that humification (and the concomitant stabilization of soil C) at our site resulted from microbial alteration of organics rather than from accumulation of recalcitrant compounds. The strong, and previously unreported, relation between 15N and SOM composition found at our study site suggests that degree of SOM humification may be correlated with an increase in δ15N SOM values relative to δ15N for fresh litter and other source material.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2021-2025
Number of pages5
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2003


  • C solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR)
  • Decomposition
  • Humification
  • Illuviation
  • Isotope fractionation
  • Natural N and C isotope abundance
  • Soil organic carbon
  • Soil organic matter dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


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