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Variable ageing and storage of dissolved organic components in the open ocean


Seawater dissolved organic matter (DOM) is the largest reservoir of exchangeable organic carbon in the ocean, comparable in quantity to atmospheric carbon dioxide1,2. The composition, turnover times and fate of all but a few planktonic constituents of this material are, however, largely unknown3,4. Models of ocean carbon cycling are thus limited by the need for information on temporal scales of carbon storage in DOM subcomponents, produced via the ‘biological pump’, relative to their recycling by bacteria3,4. Here we show that carbohydrate- and protein-like substances in the open Atlantic and Pacific oceans, though often significantly aged, comprise younger fractions of the DOM, whereas dissolved lipophilic material exhibits up to 90 per cent fossil character. In contrast to the millennial mean ages of DOM observed throughout the water column, weighted mean turnover times of DOM in the surface ocean are only decadal in magnitude. An observed size–age continuum further demonstrates that small dissolved molecules are the most highly aged forms of organic matter, cycling much more slowly than larger, younger dissolved and particulate precursors, and directly links oceanic organic matter age and size with reactivity3,5.

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Figure 1: Isotopic signatures of dissolved organic fractions relative to DOMHMW.
Figure 2: Δ14C versus δ13C for dissolved organic fractions, DOMHMW, and DOMLMW.

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We thank E. Canuel, J. Hwang and S. Griffin for laboratory guidance during compound class extractions; M. Ederington-Hagy, E. Waterson and J. Southon for discussions on experiments; S. Griffin, R. Wilson, L. Delizo, C. Masiello, A. Grottoli and the captains and crews of RV Melville and RV Knorr for field assistance and logistical support; A. McNichol and colleagues at NOSAMS for Δ14C measurements; E. Franks for δ13C measurements; and R. Benner for comments that significantly improved this manuscript. This work was supported by the Chemical Oceanography Program of the US National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Ai Ning Loh.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

This table shows the calculations for the weighted mean turnover times (TOT) for non-homogenously aged reservoirs of dissolved organic matter (DOM) based on the ages of the individual organic and size fractions measured in this study. (DOC 39 kb)

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Loh, A., Bauer, J. & Druffel, E. Variable ageing and storage of dissolved organic components in the open ocean. Nature 430, 877–881 (2004).

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