Understanding rhizosphere processes in relation to increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations is important for predicting the response of forest ecosystems to environmental changes, because rhizosphere processes are intimately linked with nutrient cycling and soil organic matter decomposition, both of which feedback to tree growth and soil carbon storage. Plants grown in elevated CO2 substantially increase C input to the rhizosphere. Although it is known that elevated CO2 enhances rhizosphere respiration more than it enhances root biomass, the fate and function of this extra carbon input to the rhizosphere in response to elevated CO2 are not clear. Depending on specific plant and soil conditions, the increased carbon input to the rhizosphere can result in an increase, a decrease, or no effect on soil organic matter decomposition and nutrient mineralization. Three mechanisms may account for these inconsistent results: (1) the “preferential substrate utilization” hypothesis; (2) the “priming effect” hypothesis; and (3) the “competition” hypothesis, i.e., competition for mineral nutrients between plants and soil microorganisms. A microbial growth model is developed that quantitatively links the increased rhizosphere input in response to elevated CO2 with soil organic matter decomposition. The model incorporates the three proposed mechanisms, and simulates the complexity of the rhizosphere processes. The model also illustrates mechanistically the interactions among nitrogen availability, substrate quality, and microbial dynamics when the system is exposed to elevated CO2.

Author notes

Current address: Department of Biological Sciences, Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-1715, USA