4D imaging reveals mechanisms of clay-carbon protection and release.
Soil absorbs about 20% of anthropogenic carbon emissions annually, and clay is one of the key carbon-capture materials. Although sorption to clay is widely assumed to strongly retard the microbial decomposition of soil organic matter, enhanced degradation of clay-associated organic carbon has been observed under certain conditions. The conditions in which clay influences microbial decomposition remain uncertain because the mechanisms of clay-organic carbon interactions are not fully understood. Here we reveal the spatiotemporal dynamics of carbon sorption and release within model clay aggregates and the role of enzymatic decomposition by directly imaging a transparent smectite clay on a microfluidic chip. We demonstrate that clay-carbon protection is due to the quasi-irreversible sorption of high molecular-weight sugars within clay aggregates and the exclusion of bacteria from these aggregates. We show that this physically-protected carbon can be enzymatically broken down into fragments that are released into solution. Further, we suggest improvements relevant to soil carbon models.