Biofunctionality of soil organic matter

Ellis Hoffland1, Thom Kuyper1, Rob Comans2, Rachel Creamer1

Wageningen University, The Netherlands

1Soil Biology group

2Soil Chemistry and Chemical Soil Quality group


Soil organic matter serves various functions. Interest in SOM as the source of plant nutrients is ancient. And while mineral fertilizers have, in many agro-ecosystems, replaced the role of SOM as supplier of nutrients, that interest has remained, also because of additional roles of SOM in maintaining or enhancing soil health. Since awareness about global warming grew in the 1980’s, however, the focus within research has somewhat shifted from a soil fertility perspective to C sequestration as an opportunity for climate regulation. Despite a huge body of research, there is lack of knowledge regarding the chemical, biochemical, and biological factors responsible for the various functions of SOM. We propose the term “biofunctionality” to describe the quality of SOM suitable to serve any soil ecosystem function as a result of SOM effects on the decomposer community. In our presentation I will try to link properties of SOM to the functions and ecosystem services that they provide. Apart from scientists, the concept of “biofunctionality” should also guide managers who need instruments to manage SOM for the various purposes that it has.


Ellis Hoffland is from the Soil Biology Group of Wageningen University, The Netherlands. The keyword describing her research is “soil fertility” in a broader sense. She regards soil fertility as the result of biogeochemical cycles of carbon and nutrient elements. Her motivation to study these cycles is their relevance to primary production. Being a biologist by training, her natural bias is towards the biological aspects of these cycles and, more specifically, of soil-plant interactions. She often cooperates with soil chemists because she is convinced that integration of chemical and biological information provides unique opportunities to elucidate feedbacks that are operating in complex environmental systems such as the soil. Ellis has been leading a wide diversity of research projects related to soil organic matter, including effects of mixed cropping on C sequestration and soil fertility, dissolved organic matter as a predictor for SOM mineralisation or as an indicator for disease suppression, biochar, bacterial/fungal ratio effects and cycles of nitrogen, and root exudate to increase micronutrient availability to crops.

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