Plant functional traits control a variety of terrestrial ecosystem processes, including soil carbon storage which is a key component of the global carbon cycle. Plant traits regulate net soil carbon storage by controlling carbon assimilation, its transfer and storage in belowground biomass, and its release from soil through respiration, fire and leaching. However, our mechanistic understanding of these processes is incomplete. Here, we present a mechanistic framework, based on the plant traits that drive soil carbon inputs and outputs, for understanding how alteration of vegetation composition will affect soil carbon sequestration under global changes. First, we show direct and indirect plant trait effects on soil carbon input and output through autotrophs and heterotrophs, and through modification of abiotic conditions, which need to be considered to determine the local carbon sequestration potential. Second, we explore how the composition of key plant traits and soil biota related to carbon input, release and storage prevail in different biomes across the globe, and address the biome-specific mechanisms by which plant trait composition may impact on soil carbon sequestration. We propose that a trait-based approach will help to develop strategies to preserve and promote carbon sequestration. © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd/CNRS.