Cell-wall polysaccharides play an important role in decay resistance of Sphagnum and actively depressed decomposition in vitro

T. Hajek, S. Ballance, J. Limpens, J.T.A. Verhoeven, M.J. Zijlstra

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

120 Citations (Scopus)


Sphagnum-dominated peatlands head the list of ecosystems with the largest known reservoirs of organic carbon (C). The bulk of this C is stored in decomposition-resistant litter of one bryophyte genus: Sphagnum. Understanding how Sphagnum litter chemistry controls C mineralization is essential for understanding potential interactions between environmental changes and C mineralization in peatlands. We aimed to separate the effects of phenolics from structural polysaccharides on decay of Sphagnum. Wemeasured aerobic microbial respiration of different moss litter types in a lab. We used chemical treatments to step-wise remove the chemical compounds thought to be important in decay-resistance in three taxonomically distant moss genera. We also focused on the effect of Sphagnum-specific cell-wall pectin-like polysaccharides (sphagnan) on C and N mineralization. Removing polymeric lignin-like phenolics had only negligible effects on C mineralization of Sphagnum litter, but increased mineralization of two other bryophyte genera, suggesting a minor role of these phenolics in decay resistance of Sphagnum but a major role of cell-wall polysaccharides. Carboxyl groups of pectin-like polysaccharides represented a C-source in non-Sphagnum litters but resisted decay in Sphagnum. Finally, isolated sphagnan did not serve as C-source but inhibited C and N mineralization instead, reminiscent of the effects reported for phenolics in other ecosystems. Our results emphasize the role of polysaccharides in resistance to, and active inhibition of, microbial mineralization in Sphagnum-dominated litter. As the polysaccharides displayed decay-inhibiting properties hitherto associated with phenolics (lignin, polyphenols), it raises the question if polysaccharide- dominated litter also shares similar environmental controls on decomposition, such as temperature or nutrient and water availability
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-57
Issue number1-3
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • mild acid-hydrolysis
  • carbon accumulation
  • oxidation-products
  • peat bogs
  • papillosum
  • holocellulose
  • bryophytes
  • peatlands
  • chemistry
  • residues


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