Research ArticleGEOCHEMISTRY

Carotenoids are the likely precursor of a significant fraction of marine dissolved organic matter

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Science Advances  27 Sep 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 9, e1602976
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1602976

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The ocean’s biota sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in part by producing dissolved organic matter (DOM) that persists in the ocean for millennia. This long-term accumulation of carbon may be facilitated by abiotic and biotic production of chemical structures that resist degradation, consequently contributing disproportionately to refractory DOM. Compounds that are selectively preserved in seawater were identified in solid-phase extracted DOM (PPL-DOM) using comprehensive gas chromatography (GC) coupled to mass spectrometry (MS). These molecules contained cyclic head groups that were linked to isoprenoid tails, and their overall structures closely resembled carotenoid degradation products (CDP). The origin of these compounds in PPL-DOM was further confirmed with an in vitro β-carotene photooxidation experiment that generated water-soluble CDP with similar structural characteristics. The molecular-level identification linked at least 10% of PPL-DOM carbon, and thus 4% of total DOM carbon, to CDP. Nuclear magnetic resonance spectra of experimental CDP and environmental PPL-DOM overlapped considerably, which indicated that even a greater proportion of PPL-DOM was likely composed of CDP. The CDP-rich DOM fraction was depleted in radiocarbon (14C age > 1500 years), a finding that supports the possible long-term accumulation of CDP in seawater. By linking a specific class of widespread biochemicals to refractory DOM, this work provides a foundation for future studies that aim to examine how persistent DOM forms in the ocean.

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