Trade-offs in carbon-degrading enzyme activities limit long-term soil carbon sequestration with biochar addition

Jiao Feng, Dailin Yu, Robert L Sinsabaugh, Daryl L Moorhead, Mathias Neumann Andersen, Pete Smith, Yanting Song, Xinqi Li, Qiaoyun Huang, Yu-Rong Liu* (Corresponding Author), Ji Chen* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biochar amendment is one of the most promising agricultural approaches to tackle climate change by enhancing soil carbon (C) sequestration. Microbial-mediated decomposition processes are fundamental for the fate and persistence of sequestered C in soil, but the underlying mechanisms are uncertain. Here, we synthesise 923 observations regarding the effects of biochar addition (over periods ranging from several weeks to several years) on soil C-degrading enzyme activities from 130 articles across five continents worldwide. Our results showed that biochar addition increased soil ligninase activity targeting complex phenolic macromolecules by 7.1%, but suppressed cellulase activity degrading simpler polysaccharides by 8.3%. These shifts in enzyme activities explained the most variation of changes in soil C sequestration across a wide range of climatic, edaphic and experimental conditions, with biochar-induced shift in ligninase:cellulase ratio correlating negatively with soil C sequestration. Specifically, short-term (<1 year) biochar addition significantly reduced cellulase activity by 4.6% and enhanced soil organic C sequestration by 87.5%, whereas no significant responses were observed for ligninase activity and ligninase:cellulase ratio. However, long-term (≥1 year) biochar addition significantly enhanced ligninase activity by 5.2% and ligninase:cellulase ratio by 36.1%, leading to a smaller increase in soil organic C sequestration (25.1%). These results suggest that shifts in enzyme activities increased ligninase:cellulase ratio with time after biochar addition, limiting long-term soil C sequestration with biochar addition. Our work provides novel evidence to explain the diminished soil C sequestration with long-term biochar addition and suggests that earlier studies may have overestimated soil C sequestration with biochar addition by failing to consider the physiological acclimation of soil microorganisms over time.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
JournalBiological Reviews
Early online date13 Mar 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Mar 2023


  • biochar addition
  • enzyme activity
  • soil carbon sequestration
  • experimental duration
  • soil microorganism
  • meta-analysis


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