Articles | Volume 11, issue 2
Research article
 | Highlight paper
23 Jan 2014
Research article | Highlight paper |  | 23 Jan 2014

Weathering by tree-root-associating fungi diminishes under simulated Cenozoic atmospheric CO2 decline

J. Quirk, J. R. Leake, S. A. Banwart, L. L. Taylor, and D. J. Beerling

Abstract. Trees dominate terrestrial biotic weathering of silicate minerals by converting solar energy into chemical energy that fuels roots and their ubiquitous nutrient-mobilising fungal symbionts. These biological activities regulate atmospheric CO2 concentrations ([CO2]a) over geologic timescales by driving calcium and magnesium fluvial ion export and marine carbonate formation. However, the important stabilising feedbacks between [CO2]a and biotic weathering anticipated by geochemical carbon cycle models remain untested. We report experimental evidence for a negative feedback across a declining Cenozoic [CO2]a range from 1500 to 200 ppm, whereby low [CO2]a curtails mineral surface alteration via trenching and etch pitting by arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) and ectomycorrhizal (EM) fungal partners of tree roots. Optical profile imaging using vertical scanning interferometry reveals changes in nanoscale surface topography consistent with a dual mode of attack involving delamination and trenching by AM and EM fungal hyphae on phyllosilicate mineral flakes. This is consistent with field observations of micropores in feldspar, hornblende and basalt, purportedly caused by EM fungi, but with little confirmatory evidence. Integrating these findings into a process-based biotic weathering model revealed that low [CO2]a effectively acts as a "carbon starvation" brake, causing a three-fold drop in tree-driven fungal weathering fluxes of calcium and magnesium from silicate rock grains as [CO2]a falls from 1500 to 200 ppm. The feedback is regulated through the action of low [CO2]a on host tree productivity and provides empirical evidence for the role of [CO2]a starvation in diminishing the contribution of trees and mycorrhizal fungi to rates of biological weathering. More broadly, diminished tree-driven weathering under declining [CO2]a may provide an important contributory mechanism stabilising Earth's [CO2]a minimum over the past 24 million years.

Final-revised paper