Articles | Volume 13, issue 8
Research article
19 Apr 2016
Research article |  | 19 Apr 2016

Molecular characterization of dissolved organic matter from subtropical wetlands: a comparative study through the analysis of optical properties, NMR and FTICR/MS

Norbert Hertkorn, Mourad Harir, Kaelin M. Cawley, Philippe Schmitt-Kopplin, and Rudolf Jaffé

Abstract. Wetlands provide quintessential ecosystem services such as maintenance of water quality, water supply and biodiversity, among others; however, wetlands are also among the most threatened ecosystems worldwide. Natural dissolved organic matter (DOM) is an abundant and critical component in wetland biogeochemistry. This study describes the first detailed, comparative, molecular characterization of DOM in subtropical, pulsed, wetlands, namely the Everglades (USA), the Pantanal (Brazil) and the Okavango Delta (Botswana), using optical properties, high-field nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry (FT-ICRMS), and compares compositional features to variations in organic matter sources and flooding characteristics (i.e., differences in hydroperiod). While optical properties showed a high degree of variability within and between the three wetlands, analogies in DOM fluorescence properties were such that an established excitation emission matrix fluorescence parallel factor analysis (EEM-PARAFAC) model for the Everglades was perfectly applicable to the other two wetlands. Area-normalized 1H NMR spectra of selected samples revealed clear distinctions of samples while a pronounced congruence within the three pairs of wetland DOM readily suggested the presence of an individual wetland-specific molecular signature. Within sample pairs (long- vs. short-hydroperiod sites), internal differences mainly referred to intensity variations (denoting variable abundance) rather than to alterations of NMR resonances positioning (denoting diversity of molecules). The relative disparity was largest between the Everglades long- and short-hydroperiod samples, whereas Pantanal and Okavango samples were more alike among themselves. Otherwise, molecular divergence was most obvious in the case of unsaturated protons (δH > 5 ppm). 2-D NMR spectroscopy for a particular sample revealed a large richness of aliphatic and unsaturated substructures, likely derived from microbial sources such as periphyton in the Everglades. In contrast, the chemical diversity of aromatic wetland DOM likely originates from a combination of higher plant sources, progressive microbial and photochemical oxidation, and contributions from combustion-derived products (e.g., black carbon). FT-ICRMS spectra of both Okavango and Pantanal showed near 57 ± 2 % CHO, 8 ± 2 % CHOS, 33 ± 2 % CHNO and < 1 % CHNOS molecules, whereas those of Everglades samples were markedly enriched in CHOS and CHNOS at the expense of CHO and CHNO compounds. In particular, the Everglades short-hydroperiod site showed a large set of aromatic and oxygen-deficient “black sulfur” compounds whereas the long-hydroperiod site contained oxygenated sulfur attached to fused-ring polyphenols. The elevated abundance of CHOS compounds for the Everglades samples likely results from higher inputs of agriculture-derived and sea-spray-derived sulfate. Although wetland DOM samples were found to share many molecular features, each sample was unique in its composition, which reflected specific environmental drivers and/or specific biogeochemical processes.

Short summary
Wetlands commonly feature high levels of natural dissolved organic matter (DOM), a critical component in their biogeochemical functions. Here we describe the first detailed, comparative, molecular characterization of DOM in three sub-tropical, pulsed, wetlands, using optical properties, high field nuclear magnetic resonance and ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry, and compare compositional features to variations in organic matter sources and flooding characteristics.
Final-revised paper