Note on Decomposition: Ecosystem


Note on Decomposition: Ecosystem

Journal of Ecosystem and Ecography  is an international open access journal publishing the quality peer-reviewed research articles relevant to the field of Environmental Sciences. The journal selects the articles to be published with a single bind, peer review system, following the practices of good scholarly journals. It supports the open access policy of making scientific research accessible to one and all.

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The carbon and nutrients in dead organic matter are broken down by a group of processes known as decomposition. This releases nutrients that can then be re-used for plant and microbial production and returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere (or water) where it can be used for photosynthesis. In the absence of decomposition, the dead organic matter would accumulate in an ecosystem, and nutrients and atmospheric carbon dioxide would be depleted. Approximately 90% of terrestrial net primary production goes directly from plant to decomposer.

Decomposition processes can be separated into three categories—leaching, fragmentation and chemical alteration of dead material. As water moves through dead organic matter, it dissolves and carries with it the water-soluble components. These are then taken up by organisms in the soil, react with mineral soil, or are transported beyond the confines of the ecosystem (and are considered lost to it). Newly shed leaves and newly dead animals have high concentrations of water-soluble components and include sugars, amino acids and mineral nutrients. Leaching is more important in wet environments and much less important in dry ones.

Fragmentation processes break organic material into smaller pieces, exposing new surfaces for colonization by microbes. Freshly shed leaf litter may be inaccessible due to an outer layer of cuticle or bark, and cell contents are protected by a cell wall. Newly dead animals may be covered by an exoskeleton. Fragmentation processes, which break through these protective layers, accelerate the rate of microbial decomposition. Animals fragment detritus as they hunt for food, as does passage through the gut. Freeze-thaw cycles and cycles of wetting and drying also fragment dead material.

The chemical alteration of the dead organic matter is primarily achieved through bacterial and fungal action. Fungal hyphae produces enzymes that can break through the tough outer structures surrounding dead plant material. They also produce enzymes which break down lignin, which allows them access to both cell contents and the nitrogen in the lignin. Fungi can transfer carbon and nitrogen through their hyphal networks and thus, unlike bacteria, are not dependent solely on locally available resources.

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