Long-term decomposition captures key steps in microbial breakdown of seagrass litter.

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Journal Article
The Science of the total environment, 2020, 705, pp. 135806
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Seagrass biomass represents an important source of organic carbon that can contribute to long-term sediment carbon stocks in coastal ecosystems. There is little empirical data on the long-term microbial decomposition of seagrass detritus, despite this process being one of the key drivers of carbon-cycling in coastal ecosystems, that is, it influences the amount and quality of carbon available for sequestration. Here, our goal was to investigate how litter quality (leaf vs. rhizome/root) and the microbial communities involved in organic matter remineralisation shift over a 2-year field decomposition study north of Sydney, Australia using the temperate seagrass Zostera muelleri. The sites varied in bulk sediment characteristics and the sediment-associated microbial communities, but these variables overall had little influence on long-term seagrass decomposition rates or seagrass-associated microbiomes. The results showed a clear succession of bacterial and archaeal communities for both tissues types from r-strategists such as α- and γ-proteobacteria to K-strategies, including δ-proteobacteria, Bacteroidia and Spirochaetes. We used a new mathematical model to capture how decay rates varied over time and found that two decomposition events occurred for some seagrass leaf samples, possibly due to exudate input from living seagrass roots growing into the litter bag. The new model also indicated that conventional single exponential models overestimate long-term decay rates, and we detected for the first time the refractory, or stable, phase of decomposition for rhizome/root biomass. The stable phase began at approximately 20% mass remaining and after 600 days, and the persistence of rhizome/root biomass was attributed to the anoxic conditions and the preservation of refractory organic matter. While we predict that rhizome/root biomass will contribute more to the long-term sediment carbon stocks, the preservation of leaf carbon may be enhanced at locations were sedimentation is high and burial in anoxic conditions is rapid and constant.
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