Soil microorganisms act as gatekeepers for soil-atmosphere carbon exchange by balancing the accumulation and release of soil organic matter. However, poor understanding of the mechanisms responsible hinders the development of effective land management strategies to enhance soil carbon storage. Here we empirically test the link between microbial ecophysiological traits and topsoil carbon content across geographically distributed soils and land use contrasts. We discovered distinct pH controls on microbial mechanisms of carbon accumulation. Land use intensification in low-pH soils that increased the pH above a threshold (similar to 6.2) leads to carbon loss through increased decomposition, following alleviation of acid retardation of microbial growth. However, loss of carbon with intensification in near-neutral pH soils was linked to decreased microbial biomass and reduced growth efficiency that was, in turn, related to trade-offs with stress alleviation and resource acquisition. Thus, less-intensive management practices in near-neutral pH soils have more potential for carbon storage through increased microbial growth efficiency, whereas in acidic soils, microbial growth is a bigger constraint on decomposition rates.
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