Dissolved organic matter (DOM) in soils plays an important role in the biogeochemistry of carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, in pedogenesis, and in the transport of pollutants in soils. The aim of this review is to summarize the recent literature about controls on DOM concentrations and fluxes in soils. We focus on comparing results between laboratory and field investigations and on the differences between the dynamics of dissolved organic carbon (DOC), nitrogen (DON), and phosphorus (DOP).
Both laboratory and field studies show that litter and humus are the most important DOM sources in soils. However, it is impossible to quantify the individual contributions of each of these sources to DOM release. In addition, it is not clear how changes in the pool sizes of litter or humus may affect DOM release. High microbial activity, high fungal abundance, and any conditions that enhance mineralization all promote high DOM concentrations. However, under field conditions, hydrologic variability in soil horizons with high carbon contents may be more important than biotic controls. In subsoil horizons with low carbon contents, DOM may be adsorbed strongly to mineral surfaces, resulting in low DOM concentrations in the soil solution. There are strong indications that microbial degradation of DOM also controls the fate of DOM in the soil.
Laboratory experiments on controls of DOM dynamics have often contradicted field observations, primarily because hydrology has not been taken into account. For example, laboratory findings on the effects of plant species (conifer vs. deciduous) on DOM release from forest floors and on the effects of substrate quality (e.g.: C/N ratio) or pH on DOC concentrations were often not confirmed in field studies. The high adsorption capacity of soil clay minerals and oxides for DOM shown in laboratory studies may not control the transport of DOM in soils in the field if macropore fluxes dominate under field conditions. Laboratory findings about the biodegradability of DOM also await verification under field conditions.
Studies that include DON and DOP dynamics in addition to DOC are few. The rate of release and the fate of DOC, DON, and DOP in soils may differ to a far greater extent than previously assumed. Controls established for DOC might thus be not valid for DON and DOP.
Despite intensive research in the last decade, our knowledge of the formation and fate of DOM in soils and its response to changing environmental conditions is still fragmented and often inconsistent. Predictions at the field scale are still very uncertain, and most of the information available today is the result of studies on temperate soils and forest ecosystems. Thus, future research on controls of DOM dynamics should be extended to soils under different land uses and in other climate zones. Emphasis should also be given to: (i) the effects of soil organic matter properties on the release of DOM (ii) environmental factors controlling DOM quantity and quality (iii) the assessment of biological versus physico-chemical controls on the release and retention of DOM in soils, and (iv) the differences between DOC, DON, and DOP. Finally, if our goal is to predict DOM concentrations and fluxes in soils, future research on the controls of DOM dynamics should have a strong focus on field studies.