iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry


Separating soil respiration components with stable isotopes: natural abundance and labelling approaches

E Braig (1)   , B Tupek (2)

iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry, Volume 3, Issue 4, Pages 92-94 (2010)
doi: https://doi.org/10.3832/ifor0541-003
Published: Jul 15, 2010 - Copyright © 2010 SISEF

Review Papers

Collection/Special Issue: NFZ Summer School 2009 - Birmensdorf (Switzerland)
Long-term ecosystem research: understanding the present to shape the future
Guest Editors: Marcus Schaub (WSL, Switzerland)

Due to the potential of forest ecosystems contributing to CO2 increase as well as to climate change mitigation, forest-atmosphere CO2 exchange has been intensively studied over last decades. However, the contribution of individual components of belowground carbon pools is still poorly known. In particular, there is no unequivocal means to separate root respiration (autotrophic) from heterotrophic respiration by soil microflora and fauna. Most studies investigating soil respiration disturbed the soil and tried to exclude autrophic respiration. Here we review alternative non invasive methods to separate the two components. Those methods share the application of the stable carbon isotope 13C, using either local changes in natural abundance of 13CO2 or artificial labelling of trees with CO2 enriched or depleted in 13C. We conclude that the applicability of natural stable isotope methods is still limited in forest ecosystems because only in a few cases there are large enough differences in 13C among soil carbon pools (usually due to the earlier presence of a C4 canopy, which is seldom in forests). On the other hand, artificial labelling with CO2 either enriched or depleted in 13C is now in a widely used for partitioning soil respiration components. However, recent findings gave clear evidence that measurements of soil CO2 efflux can be substantially influenced by the return efflux of the abiotic label. Still, especially the combination of Free Air Carbon Enrichment (FACE) with dual δ13C and δ18O stable isotope approach has the potential to provide new answers on the response sensitivity of turnover dynamics of the largest belowground soil carbon storage to elevated temperature and CO2.


Carbon stable isotopes, Labelling, Natural abundance, Autotrophic and heterotrophic soil respiration

Authors’ address

E Braig
Technical University Munich, Dept. Limnologische Station Iffeldorf, Hofmark 1 - 3, D-82393 Iffeldorf (Germany)
B Tupek
Dept. Forest Ecology, University of Helsinki, Latokartanonkaari 7, FI-00014 Helsinki (Finland)

Corresponding author



Braig E, Tupek B (2010). Separating soil respiration components with stable isotopes: natural abundance and labelling approaches. iForest 3: 92-94. - doi: 10.3832/ifor0541-003

Academic Editor

Marcus Schaub

Paper history

Received: May 25, 2010
Accepted: May 31, 2010

First online: Jul 15, 2010
Publication Date: Jul 15, 2010
Publication Time: 1.50 months

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