Molecular insights into the microbial formation of marine dissolved organic matter: recalcitrant or labile?
Abstract. The degradation of marine dissolved organic matter (DOM) is an important control variable in the global carbon cycle. For our understanding of the kinetics of organic matter cycling in the ocean, it is crucial to achieve a mechanistic and molecular understanding of its transformation processes. A long-term microbial experiment was performed to follow the production of non-labile DOM by marine bacteria. Two different glucose concentrations and dissolved algal exudates were used as substrates. We monitored the bacterial abundance, concentrations of dissolved and particulate organic carbon (DOC, POC), nutrients, amino acids and transparent exopolymer particles (TEP) for 2 years. The molecular characterization of extracted DOM was performed by ultrahigh resolution Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FT-ICR MS) after 70 days and after ∼2 years of incubation. Although glucose quickly degraded, a non-labile DOC background (5–9% of the initial DOC) was generated in the glucose incubations. Only 20% of the organic carbon from the algal exudate degraded within the 2 years of incubation. The degradation rates for the non-labile DOC background in the different treatments varied between 1 and 11 μmol DOC L−1 year−1. Transparent exopolymer particles, which are released by microorganisms, were produced during glucose degradation but decreased back to half of the maximum concentration within less than 3 weeks (degradation rate: 25 μg xanthan gum equivalents L−1 d−1) and were below detection in all treatments after 2 years. Additional glucose was added after 2 years to test whether labile substrate can promote the degradation of background DOC (co-metabolism; priming effect). A priming effect was not observed but the glucose addition led to a slight increase of background DOC. The molecular analysis demonstrated that DOM generated during glucose degradation differed appreciably from DOM transformed during the degradation of the algal exudates. Our results led to several conclusions: (i) based on our experimental setup, higher substrate concentration resulted in a higher concentration of non-labile DOC; (ii) TEP, generated by bacteria, degrade rapidly, thus limiting their potential contribution to carbon sequestration; (iii) the molecular signatures of DOM derived from algal exudates and glucose after 70 days of incubation differed strongly from refractory DOM. After 2 years, however, the molecular patterns of DOM in glucose incubations were more similar to deep ocean DOM whereas the degraded exudate was still different.