Analysis of depth trends of 13C abundance in soil organic matter and of 13C abundance from soil-respired CO2 provides useful indications of the dynamics of the terrestrial carbon cycle and of paleoecological change. We measured depth trends of 13C abundance from cropland and control pairs of soils in the lower Mississippi Basin, as well as the 13C abundance of soil-respired CO2 produced during approximately 1-year soil incubation, to determine the role of several candidate processes on the 13C depth profile of soil organic matter. Depth profiles of 13C from uncultivated control soils show a strong relationship between the natural logarithm of soil organic carbon concentration and its isotopic composition, consistent with a model Rayleigh distillation of 13C in decomposing soil due to kinetic fractionation during decomposition. Laboratory incubations showed that initially respired CO 2 had a relatively constant 13C content, despite large differences in the 13C content of bulk soil organic matter. Initially respired CO2 was consistently 13C-depleted with respect to bulk soil and became increasingly 13C-depleted during 1-year, consistent with the hypothesis of accumulation of 13C in the products of microbial decomposition, but showing increasing decomposition of 13C-depleted stable organic components during decomposition without input of fresh biomass. We use the difference between 13C / 12C ratios (calculated as ??-values) between respired CO 2 and bulk soil organic carbon as an index of the degree of decomposition of soil, showing trends which are consistent with trends of 14C activity, and with results of a two-pooled kinetic decomposition rate model describing CO2 production data recorded during 1 year of incubation. We also observed inconsistencies with the Rayleigh distillation model in paired cropland soils and reasons for these inconsistencies are discussed. ?? 2005 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.