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Magnesium stable isotopes as a potential geochemical tool in agronomy – Constraints and opportunities (2022)

Uhlig D., Wu B., Berns A., Amelung W.

Chemical Geology, 611 (), 121114



A sustainable use of soil resources is urgently required to cope with the increasing demand for agricultural products during climate change. To inspire farmers on new soil cultivation methods like subsoil management requires not only yield measurements but also nutrient use efficiency measurements for which analytical tools are still missing. Stable isotopes of the macronutrient magnesium (Mg) are a potential novel subsoil management evaluation tool in agronomy and soil/plant sciences because its isotope ratios shift considerably during Mg uptake by crops. The feasibility of Mg stable isotopes was first demonstrated conceptually by simulating subsoil management on soils with low, middle, and high inventories of bioavailable Mg and crop plants typically cultivated in Germany. This simulation showed that the magnitude of Mg isotope shifts among crops and the exchangeable fraction of Mg in soil is resolvable from the long-term external precision of Mg isotope analyses only if three conditions are met. First, the crop uptake-related Mg isotope fractionation factor should be at the upper end of hitherto published fractionation factors. Second, a high Mg uptake flux of crop plants (e.g., sugar beets) is matched by a low Mg supply from the exchangeable fraction in soil (e.g., sandy soils). Third, subsoil management causes a considerable deepening of the rooting system (e.g., flipping the topsoil root cluster below 30 cm depth). If these conditions are met, Mg stable isotopes can be used in a qualitative manner to identify the main Mg uptake depth, and in a quantitative manner by calculating the Mg use efficiency, defined here as the ratio of Mg uptake versus Mg supply, solely from Mg isotope ratios. This concept was tested for Alfisols on field trials by conducting deep loosening with and without the incorporation of compost. Magnesium isotope shifts in crops and the exchangeable fraction of Mg in soil were mostly unresolvable from the long-term external precision of Mg isotope analyses, which positively tested the Mg isotope concept for well nurtured soils. However, systematic Mg isotope shifts among bulk crops cultivated on and beside a melioration strip were found and attributed to the uplift of isotopically distinct compost-derived Mg on the melioration strip and root restricting layers beside the melioration strip. Given that the Mg isotope composition of the exchangeable fraction barely varies with depth, field-based crop uptake-related ‘apparent’ Mg isotope fractionation factors of winter wheat and spring barley could be determined, which differed from one another (Δ26Mgwheat-rem. exch. = 0.63 ± 0.05‰, Δ26Mgbarley-rem. exch. = 0.37 ± 0.12‰). Nonetheless, the quantitative approach of Mg isotopes was violated when calcareous fertilizer was applied to the field as differences in the isotope-derived Mg use efficiency could be attributed to the uneven distribution of lime-derived Mg with depth. Using Mg stable isotopes as a new geochemical routine for agronomy and soil/plant sciences requires future work focussing on isotope fractionation factors related to crop uptake and intra-plant translocation of Mg – which may depend on species, environmental conditions, and nutrient status – to allow minimally invasive sampling of the soil-plant system and to reduce sample sets.

Sustainable Subsoil Management