Letter | Published:

Persistence of dissolved organic matter in lakes related to its molecular characteristics

Nature Geoscience volume 8, pages 454457 (2015) | Download Citation


Whether intrinsic molecular properties or extrinsic factors such as environmental conditions control the decomposition of natural organic matter across soil, marine and freshwater systems has been subject to debate1,2,3. Comprehensive evaluations of the controls that molecular structure exerts on organic matter’s persistence in the environment have been precluded by organic matter’s extreme complexity4. Here we examine dissolved organic matter from 109 Swedish lakes using ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry and optical spectroscopy to investigate the constraints on its persistence in the environment. We find that degradation processes preferentially remove oxidized, aromatic compounds, whereas reduced, aliphatic and N-containing compounds are either resistant to degradation or tightly cycled and thus persist in aquatic systems. The patterns we observe for individual molecules are consistent with our measurements of emergent bulk characteristics of organic matter at wide geographic and temporal scales, as reflected by optical properties. We conclude that intrinsic molecular properties are an important control of overall organic matter reactivity.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

    et al. Persistence of soil organic matter as an ecosystem property. Nature 478, 49–56 (2011).

  2. 2.

    , & What happens to terrestrial organic matter in the ocean? Org. Geochem. 27, 195–212 (1997).

  3. 3.

    Speed bumps and barricades in the carbon cycle: Substrate structural effects on carbon cycling. Mar. Chem. 92, 263–273 (2004).

  4. 4.

    Organic Geochemistry of Natural Waters Vol. 2 (Springer, 1985).

  5. 5.

    , , & Use of elemental composition to predict bioavailability of dissolved organic matter in a Georgia river. Limnol. Oceanogr. 42, 714–721 (1997).

  6. 6.

    , , & Chemodiversity of dissolved organic matter in lakes driven by climate and hydrology. Nature Commun. 5, 3804 (2014).

  7. 7.

    et al. Controls of dissolved organic matter quality: Evidence from a large-scale boreal lake survey. Glob. Change Biol. 20, 1101–1114 (2014).

  8. 8.

    et al. Spectrofluorometric characterization of dissolved organic matter for indication of precursor organic material and aromaticity. Limnol. Oceanogr. 46, 38–48 (2001).

  9. 9.

    , , & Dissolved organic matter fluorescence spectroscopy as a tool to estimate biological activity in a coastal zone submitted to anthropogenic inputs. Org. Geochem. 31, 1765–1781 (2000).

  10. 10.

    , & Tracing dissolved organic matter in aquatic environments using a new approach to fluorescence spectroscopy. Mar. Chem. 82, 239–254 (2003).

  11. 11.

    et al. Evaluation of specific ultraviolet absorbance as an indicator of the chemical composition and reactivity of dissolved organic carbon. Environ. Sci. Technol. 37, 4702–4708 (2003).

  12. 12.

    et al. Absorption spectral slopes and slope ratios as indicators of molecular weight, source, and photobleaching of chromophoric dissolved organic matter. Limnol. Oceanogr. 53, 955–969 (2008).

  13. 13.

    & Behavior of reoccurring PARAFAC components in fluorescent dissolved organic matter in natural and engineered systems: A critical review. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 2006–2017 (2012).

  14. 14.

    et al. Dissolved organic matter in headwater streams: Compositional variability across climatic regions of North America. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 94, 95–108 (2012).

  15. 15.

    , , & Multivariate statistical approaches for the characterization of dissolved organic matter analyzed by ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 7576–7582 (2010).

  16. 16.

    , , , & Probing molecular-level transformations of dissolved organic matter: Insights on photochemical degradation and protozoan modification of DOM from electrospray ionization Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry. Mar. Chem. 92, 23–37 (2004).

  17. 17.

    , & Depth-dependent molecular composition and photo-reactivity of dissolved organic matter in a boreal lake under winter and summer conditions. Biogeosciences 10, 6945–6956 (2013).

  18. 18.

    et al. Illuminated darkness: Molecular signatures of Congo River dissolved organic matter and its photochemical alteration as revealed by ultrahigh precision mass spectrometry. Limnol. Oceanogr. 55, 1467–1477 (2010).

  19. 19.

    et al. Variations of DOM quality in inflows of a drinking water reservoir: Linking of van Krevelen diagrams with EEMF Spectra by rank correlation. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 5511–5518 (2012).

  20. 20.

    et al. What’s in an EEM? Molecular signatures associated with dissolved organic fluorescence in boreal Canada. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 10598–10606 (2014).

  21. 21.

    , & Fluorescence spectroscopy opens new windows into dissolved organic matter dynamics in freshwater ecosystems: A review. Limnol. Oceanogr. 55, 2452–2462 (2010).

  22. 22.

    Fluorescence inner-filtering correction for determining the humification index of dissolved organic matter. Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 742–746 (2002).

  23. 23.

    , , , & Differentiating with fluorescence spectroscopy the sources of dissolved organic matter in soils subjected to drying. Chemosphere 38, 45–50 (1999).

  24. 24.

    , & Changes in the molecular weight distribution of dissolved organic carbon within a Precambrian shield stream. Wat. Resour. Res. 42, W05401 (2006).

  25. 25.

    , , , & In-lake processes offset increased terrestrial inputs of dissolved organic carbon and color to lakes. PLoS ONE 8, e70598 (2013).

  26. 26.

    , , & Fluorescence-based proxies for lignin in freshwater dissolved organic matter. J. Geophys. Res. 114, G00F03 (2009).

  27. 27.

    , , & Composition of a protein-like fluorophore of dissolved organic matter in coastal wetland and estuarine ecosystems. Water Res. 41, 563–570 (2007).

  28. 28.

    et al. Characterization of a major refractory component of marine dissolved organic matter. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 70, 2990–3010 (2006).

  29. 29.

    & On the origin of the optical properties of humic substances. Environ. Sci. Technol. 38, 3885–3891 (2004).

  30. 30.

    , , & Selective loss and preservation of lake water dissolved organic matter fluorescence during long-term dark incubations. Sci. Total Environ. 433, 238–246 (2012).

  31. 31.

    , , & The Swedish monitoring of surface waters: 50 years of adaptive monitoring. Ambio 43, 3–18 (2014).

  32. 32.

    Water Chemical and Physical Analyses (The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, 2012);

  33. 33.

    & Applicability of light absorbency and fluorescence as measures of concentration and molecular-size of dissolved organic-carbon in humic Lake Tjeukemeer. Water Res. 21, 731–734 (1987).

  34. 34.

    & From mass to structure: An aromaticity index for high-resolution mass data of natural organic matter. Rapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 20, 926–932 (2006).

  35. 35.

    et al. Role of lakes for organic carbon cycling in the boreal zone. Glob. Change Biol. 10, 141–147 (2004).

  36. 36.

    & Thermogenic organic matter dissolved in the abyssal ocean. Mar. Chem. 102, 208–217 (2006).

  37. 37.

    et al. Hailstones: A window into the microbial and chemical inventory of a storm cloud. PLoS ONE 8, e53550 (2013).

  38. 38.

    et al. Vegan: Community Ecology Package R package version 2.0-0 (CRAN, 2011);

  39. 39.

    , & Graphical method for analysis of ultrahigh-resolution broadband mass spectra of natural organic matter, the van Krevelen diagram. Anal. Chem. 75, 5336–5344 (2003).

  40. 40.

    , & Molecular fractionation of dissolved organic matter with metal salts. Environ. Sci. Technol. 46, 4419–4426 (2012).

  41. 41.

    & Controlling the false discovery rate—a practical and powerful approach to multiple testing. J. R. Stat. Soc. B 57, 289–300 (1995).

  42. 42.

    , & Molecular evidence for rapid dissolved organic matter turnover in Arctic fjords. Mar. Chem. 160, 1–10 (2014).

  43. 43.

    et al. An intercomparison of three methods for the large-scale isolation of oceanic dissolved organic matter. Mar. Chem. 161, 14–19 (2014).

  44. 44.

    Mass Spectrometry 753 (Springer, 2011).

  45. 45.

    , , & Molecular Dissolved Organic Matter Composition in Lakes Across Sweden as Relative Intensities of FT-ICR-MS Peaks and PARAFAC Components and Optical Indices (PANGAEA, 2015);

Download references


We thank J. Johansson, I. Ulber, M. Friebe, K. Einarsdóttir, H. Osterholz, M. Seidel and K. Klaproth for assistance in the laboratory and with data analysis. We thank the Swedish Agricultural University for sample collection and running analyses and B. Denfeld and R. Müller for help with GIS data. Discussions with M. Berga, C. Gudasz and H. Peter improved the manuscript. We would also like to thank N. Catalán and F. Guillemette for comments on early versions of the manuscript. The sampling campaign was funded by the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. The project was funded by the project Color of Water financed by the Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning (FORMAS).

Author information

Author notes

    • Dolly N. Kothawala

    Present address: Department of Aquatic Sciences and Assessment, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, PO Box 7050, 75007 Uppsala, Sweden.


  1. Limnology/Department of Ecology and Genetics, Uppsala University, Norbyvägen 18D, 75236 Uppsala, Sweden

    • Anne M. Kellerman
    • , Dolly N. Kothawala
    •  & Lars J. Tranvik
  2. Research Group for Marine Geochemistry (ICBM-MPI Bridging Group), University of Oldenburg, Institute for Chemistry and Biology of the Marine Environment (ICBM), D-26129 Oldenburg, Germany

    • Thorsten Dittmar


  1. Search for Anne M. Kellerman in:

  2. Search for Dolly N. Kothawala in:

  3. Search for Thorsten Dittmar in:

  4. Search for Lars J. Tranvik in:


All authors participated in conceiving the study. A.M.K. conducted solid-phase extractions with assistance from D.N.K. and T.D. and FT-ICR-MS analyses with guidance from T.D. A.M.K. conducted all statistical analyses, with comments and suggestions from D.N.K., L.J.T. and T.D. A.M.K. wrote the manuscript with significant assistance and comments from L.J.T. and D.N.K.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Anne M. Kellerman.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history






Further reading