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Abstract, Nature Communications, 2019

Increasing the potential of soil to store carbon (C) is an acknowledged and emphasized strategy for capturing atmospheric CO2. Well-recognized approaches for soil C accretion include reducing soil disturbance, increasing plant biomass inputs, and enhancing plant diversity. Yet experimental evidence often fails to support anticipated C gains, suggesting that our integrated understanding of soil C accretion remains insufficient. Here we use a unique combination of X-ray micro-tomography and micro-scale enzyme mapping to demonstrate for the first time that plant-stimulated soil pore formation appears to be a major, hitherto unrecognized, determinant of whether new C inputs are stored or lost to the atmosphere. Unlike monocultures, diverse plant communities favor the development of 30–150 µm pores. Such pores are the micro-environments associated with higher enzyme activities, and greater abundance of such pores translates into a greater spatial footprint that microorganisms make on the soil and consequently soil C storage capacity.