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Transformation of n-alkanes from plant to soil: a review

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Review article (peer-reviewed)
Author Thomas Carrie L., Jansen Boris, van Loon E. Emiel, Wiesenberg Guido L. B.,
Project IQ-SASS - Improved Quantitative Source Assessment of organic matter in Soils and Sediments using molecular markers and inverse modeling
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Review article (peer-reviewed)

Journal SOIL
Publisher Copernicus {GmbH}
Volume (Issue) 7
Page(s) 785 - 809
Title of proceedings SOIL
DOI 10.5194/soil-2020-107

Open Access

Type of Open Access Publisher (Gold Open Access)


Despite the importance of soil organic matter (SOM) in the global carbon cycle, there remain many open questions regarding its formation and preservation. The study of individual organic compound classes that make up SOM, such as lipid biomarkers including n-alkanes, can provide insight into the cycling of bulk SOM. While studies of lipid biomarkers, particularly n-alkanes, have increased in number in the past few decades, only a limited number have focused on the transformation of these compounds following deposition in soil archives. We performed a systematic review to consolidate the available information on plant-derived n-alkanes and their transformation from plant to soil. Our major findings were (1) a nearly ubiquitous trend of decreased total concentration of n-alkanes either with time in litterbag experiments or with depth in open plant–soil systems and (2) preferential degradation of odd-chain length and shorter chain length n-alkanes represented by a decrease in either carbon preference index (CPI) or odd-over-even predominance (OEP) with depth, indicating degradation of the n-alkane signal or a shift in vegetation composition over time. The review also highlighted a lack of data transparency and standardization across studies of lipid biomarkers, making analysis and synthesis of published data time-consuming and difficult. We recommend that the community move towards more uniform and systematic reporting of biomarker data. Furthermore, as the number of studies examining the complete leaf–litter–soil continuum is very limited as well as unevenly distributed over geographical regions, climate zones, and soil types, future data collection should focus on underrepresented areas as well as quantifying the transformation of n-alkanes through the complete continuum from plant to soil.