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Biology professor and alumna publish paper on litter decomposition

March 23, 2012

Paul Barnes, Ph.D., biology professor and the Rev. John H. Mullahy, S.J., Endowed Chair in Environmental Biology at Loyola University New Orleans, and Loyola alumna Michele Abbene ’05, recently published a paper on litter decomposition. "Soil Coverage Reduces Photodegradation and Promotes the Development of Soil-Microbial Films on Dryland Leaf Litter," was published in Ecosystems, an international journal of ecosystem science, which reports findings on fundamental ecosystem ecology, environmental ecology and environmental-problem solving.

The article addresses how ultraviolet light, together with soil erosion, influence the decomposition of dead plant material (litter). Decomposition, or the decay of litter, determines how quickly nutrients move from plants to the soil, and also how much carbon is stored in the soil and atmosphere. Thus, it’s a critical process that can influence the atmosphere and climate change. Because arid and semiarid ecosystems occupy a significant amount of the land surface on planet Earth, decomposition in these ecosystems has a large influence on global carbon storage and emissions.

Unfortunately, ecologists do not fully understand what determines how quickly litter decomposes in deserts and other water-limited environments. While some scientists have shown that the ultraviolet light can degrade litter in these dryland ecosystems, others have argued that the covering of ground litter by moving soil is more important.

In the first study to examine these two processes together, Barnes and his co-authors found that UV can cause litter to decompose, but soil coverage reduces this influence. Moreover, when soil covers litter it creates a "microcosm" of litter, soil and microbes that fosters decomposition. Through their research, Barnes and Abbene propose a new way of looking at decomposition in dryland ecosystems by integrating a physical process (ultraviolet photodegradation) with microbial processes.

For more information, contact Barnes at 504-865-2008 or pwbarnes@loyno.edu.

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