A spectral weighting function for abiotic photodegradation based on photochemical emission of CO2 from leaf litter in sunlight

  • Thomas A. DayEmail author
  • Michael S. Bliss


Photodegradation can be a significant driver of leaf litter decomposition although the spectral effectiveness of sunlight in driving this process is not well characterized. We developed spectral weighting functions (WFs) for the photochemical emission of CO2 from three leaf litter types using 10 cutoff filters that provided contrasting polychromatic sunlight under clear skies in Tempe, AZ, USA. An iterative nonlinear least-squares regression fitting procedure was used to estimate how effective sunlight at a given wavelength was in eliciting CO2 emission. Although absolute CO2 emission rates varied appreciably among litter types, their WFs were very similar. Using the average WF of all litter types, the effectiveness of sunlight declined from 300 nm by one and two orders of magnitude at 399 and 498 nm, respectively. The slope of the WF was most similar to WFs for CO emission from terrestrial leaf litter and photobleaching of dissolved organic matter in lakes, and was much more gradual than WFs addressing UV damage to biotic processes. Peak effectiveness of clear-sky noon sunlight with our WF occurred at 330 nm, with UV-B (280–320 nm), UV-A (320–400 nm) and visible (400–550 nm) wavebands responsible for 9, 61 and 30% of CO2 emission, respectively. Results from past field studies suggest that solar UV is typically less effective in driving litter mass loss than our WF predicts; we discuss possible reasons for this discrepancy. The gradual slope of our WF implies that differences in UV-B irradiance associated with stratospheric ozone thickness or latitude are unlikely to significantly influence photochemical litter emission.


Action spectra Litter decomposition Photodegradation Photomineralization UV radiation Visible radiation 



We thank Dr. Gunnar W. Schade, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, Texas A&M University, for providing data for his action spectra of CO emission from leaves. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under grant DEB-1256180 to TAD. The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

10533_2019_616_MOESM1_ESM.docx (14 kb)
Supplementary file1 (DOCX 13 kb)


  1. Aphalo PJ, Albert A, Björn LO, Ylianttila L, Figueroa FL, Huovinen P (2012) Introduction. In: Aphalo PJ, Albert A, Björn LO, McLeod A, Robson TM, Rosenqvist E (eds) Beyond the visible: a handbook of best practice in plant UV photobiology. COST action FA0906 UV4growth. University of Helsinki, Helsinki, pp 1–33Google Scholar
  2. Austin AT, Ballaré CL (2010) Dual role of lignin in plant litter decomposition in terrestrial ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 107:4618–4622CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Austin AT, Vivanco L (2006) Plant litter decomposition in a semi-arid ecosystem controlled by photodegradation. Nature 442:555–558CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Austin AT, Méndez MS, Ballaré CL (2016) Photodegradation alleviates the lignin bottleneck for carbon turnover in terrestrial ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 113:4392–4397CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Baker NR, Allison SD (2015) Ultraviolet photodegradation facilitates microbial litter decomposition in a Mediterranean climate. Ecology 96:1994–2003CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Barnes PW, Throop HL, Hewins DB, Abbene ML, Archer SR (2012) Soil coverage reduces photodegradation and promotes the development of soil-microbial films on dryland leaf litter. Ecosystems 15:311–321CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Barnes PW, Throop HL, Archer SR, Breshears DD, McCulley RL, Tobler MA (2015) Sunlight and soil–litter mixing: drivers of litter decomposition in drylands. Prog Bot 76:273–302Google Scholar
  8. Bertiller MB, Sain CL, Carrera AL, Vargas DN (2005) Patterns of nitrogen and phosphorus conservation in dominant perennial grasses and shrubs across an aridity gradient in Patagonia, Argentina. J Arid Environ 62:209–223CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brandt LA, Bohnet C, King JY (2009) Photochemically induced carbon dioxide production as a mechanism for carbon loss from plant litter in arid ecosystems. J Geophys Res 114:1–13Google Scholar
  10. Brown AM (2001) A step-by-step guide to non-linear regression analysis of experimental data using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. Comput Methods Programs Biomed 65:191–200CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bruhn D, Mikkelsen TN, Øbro J, Willats WGT, Ambus P (2009) Effects of temperature, ultraviolet radiation and pectin methyl esterase on aerobic methane release from plant material. Plant Biol 11:43–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bruhn D, Albert KR, Mikkelsen TN, Ambus P (2013) UV-induced carbon monoxide emission from living vegetation. Biogeosciences 10:7877–7882CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Caldwell MM (1971) Solar ultraviolet radiation and the growth and development of higher plants. In: Giese AC (ed) Photophysiology, vol 6. Academic, New York, pp 131–177CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Caldwell MM, Flint SD (1997) Uses of biological weighting functions and the need of scaling for the ozone reduction problem. Plant Ecol 128:67–76CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Caldwell MM, Robberecht R, Billings WD (1980) A steep latitudinal gradient of solar ultraviolet-B radiation in the arctic-alpine life zone. Ecology 61:600–611CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Caldwell MM, Camp LB, Warner CW, Flint SD (1986) Action spectra and their key role in assessing biological consequences of solar UV-B radiation change. In: Worrest RC, Caldwell MM (eds) Stratospheric ozone reduction, solar ultraviolet radiation and plant life. Springer, Berlin, pp 87–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cory RM, Ward CP, Crump BC, Kling GW (2014) Sunlight controls water column processing of carbon in arctic fresh waters. Science 345:925–928CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Cullen JJ, Neale PJ (1997) Biological weighting functions for describing the effects of ultraviolet radiation on aquatic systems. In: Hader DP (ed) The effects of ozone depletion on aquatic ecosystems. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 97–118Google Scholar
  19. Day TA, Zhang ET, Ruhland CT (2007) Exposure to solar UV-B radiation accelerates mass and lignin loss of Larrea tridentata litter in the Sonoran Desert. Plant Ecol 193:185–194CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Day TA, Guénon R, Ruhland CT (2015) Photodegradation of plant litter in the Sonoran Desert varies by litter type and age. Soil Biol Biochem 89:109–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Day TA, Bliss MS, Tomes AR, Ruhland CT, Guénon R (2018) Desert leaf litter decay: coupling of microbial respiration, water soluble fractions and photodegradation. Glob Change Biol 24:5454–5470CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Day TA, Bliss MS, Placek SK, Tomes AR, Guénon R (2019) Thermal abiotic emission of CO2 and CH4 from leaf litter and its significance in a photodegradation assessment. Ecosphere 10:e02745CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Derendorp L, Quist JB, Holzinger R, Röckmann T (2011) Emissions of H2 and CO from leaf litter of Sequoiadendron giganteum and their dependence on UV radiation and temperature. Atmos Environ 45:7520–7524CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Dirks I, Navon Y, Kanas D, Dumbur R, Grünzweig JM (2010) Atmospheric water vapor as driver of litter decomposition in Mediterranean shrubland and grassland during rainless seasons. Glob Change Biol 16:2799–2812CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Erdenebileg E, Ye X, Wang C, Huang Z, Liu G, Cornelissen JHC (2018) Positive and negative effects of UV irradiance explain interaction of litter position and UV exposure on litter decomposition and nutrient dynamics in a semi-arid dune ecosystem. Soil Biol Biochem 124:245–254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Flint SD, Caldwell MM (2003) A biological spectral weighting function for ozone depletion research with higher plants. Physiol Plant 117:137–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Foereid B, Bellarby J, Meier-Augenstein W, Kemp H (2010) Does light exposure make plant litter more degradable? Plant Soil 333:275–285CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Frouz J, Cajthaml T, Mudrák O (2011) The effect of lignin photodegradation on decomposability of Calamagrostis epigeios grass litter. Biodegradation 22:1247–1254CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gliksman D, Rey A, Seligmann R, Dumbur R, Sperling O, Navon Y, Haenel S, DeAngelis P, Arnone JA, Grünzweig JM (2017) Biotic degradation at night, abiotic degradation at day: positive feedbacks on litter decomposition in drylands. Glob Change Biol 23:1564–1574CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hocking PJ (1982) Effect of water stress on redistribution of nutrients from leaflets of narrow-leaved lupin (Lupinus angustifolius L.). Ann Bot 49:541–543CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Horler DNH, Dockray M, Barber J (1983) The red edge of plant leaf reflectance. Int J Remote Sens 4:273–288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Kieber RJ, Zhou X, Mopper K (1990) Formation of carbonyl compounds from UV-induced photodegradation of humic substances in natural waters: fate of riverine carbon in the sea. Limnol Oceanogr 35:1503–1515CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. King JY, Brandt LA, Adair EC (2012) Shedding light on plant litter decomposition: advances, implications and new directions in understanding the role of photodegradation. Biogeochemistry 111:57–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kirschbaum MUF, Lambie SM, Zhou H (2011) No UV enhancement of litter decomposition observed on dry samples under controlled laboratory conditions. Soil Biol Biochem 43:1300–1307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Lambie SM, Kirschbaum MUF, Dando J (2014) No photodegradation of litter and humus exposed to UV-B radiation under laboratory conditions: No effect of leaf senescence or drying temperatures. Soil Biol Biochem 69:46–53CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Lee H, Rahn T, Throop H (2012) An accounting of C-based trace gas release during abiotic plant litter degradation. Glob Change Biol 18:1185–1195CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Lin Y, Karlen SD, Ralph J, King JY (2018) Short-term facilitation of microbial litter decomposition by ultraviolet radiation. Sci Total Environ 615:838–848CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. McLeod AR, Fry SC, Loake GJ, Messenger DJ, Reay DS, Smith KA, Yun BW (2008) Ultraviolet radiation drives methane emissions from terrestrial plant pectins. New Phytol 180:124–132CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Mikkelsen TN, Bruhn D, Ambus P (2016) Solar UV irradiation-induced production of greenhouse gases from plant surfaces: from leaf to earth. Prog Bot 78:407–437Google Scholar
  40. Osburn CL, Morris DP (2003) Photochemistry of chromophoric dissolved organic matter in natural waters. In: Helbling EW, Horacio Zagarese H (eds) UV effects in aquatic organisms and ecosystems. The Royal Society of Chemistry. Springer, Cambridge, pp 185–217Google Scholar
  41. Osburn CL, Zagarese HE, Morris DP, Hargreaves BR, Cravero WE (2001) Calculation of spectral weighting functions for the solar photobleaching of chromophoric dissolved organic matter in temperate lakes. Limnol Oceanogr 46:1455–1467CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Rundel RD (1983) Action spectra and estimation of biologically effective UV radiation. Physiol Plant 58:360–366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Rutledge S, Campbell DI, Baldocchi D, Schipper LA (2010) Photodegradation leads to increased carbon dioxide losses from terrestrial organic matter. Glob Change Biol 16:3065–3074Google Scholar
  44. Schade GW, Hofmann R-M, Crutzen PJ (1999) CO emissions from degrading plant matter (I). Measurements. Tellus Ser B 51:889–908CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Setlow RB (1974) The wavelengths in sunlight effective in producing skin cancer: a theoretical analysis. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 71:3363–3366CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Uselman SM, Snyder KA, Blank RR, Jones TJ (2011) UVB exposure does not accelerate rates of litter decomposition in a semi-arid riparian ecosystem. Soil Biol Biochem 43:1254–1265CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Vähätalo AV, Salkinoja-Salonen M, Taalas P, Salonen K (2000) Spectrum of the quantum yield for photochemical mineralization of dissolved organic carbon in a humic lake. Limnol Oceanogr 45:664–676CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Valentine R, Zepp RG (1993) Formation of carbon monoxide from the photodegradation of terrestrial dissolved organic carbon in natural waters. Environ Sci Technol 27:409–412CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Vigano I, Röckmann T, Holzinger R, van Dijk A, Keppler F, Greule M, Brand WA, Geilmann H, van Weelden H (2009) The stable isotope signature of methane emitted from plant material under UV irradiation. Atmos Environ 43:5637–5646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Whitehead RF, deMora S, Demers S, Gosselin M, Monfort P, Mostajir B (2000) Interactions of ultraviolet-B radiation, mixing, and biological activity on photobleaching of natural chromophoric dissolved organic matter: a mesocosm study. Limnol Oceanogr 45:278–291CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Zepp RG, Cyterski M, Wong K, Georgacopoulos O, Acrey B, Whelan G, Parmar R, Molina M (2018) Biological weighting functions for evaluating the role of sunlight-induced inactivation of coliphages at selected beaches and nearby tributaries. Environ Sci Technol 52:13068–13076CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Life SciencesArizona State UniversityTempeUSA

Personalised recommendations