Dissolved organic matter affects fundamental biogeochemical processes in the soil such as nutrient cycling and organic matter storage. The current paradigm is that processing of dissolved organic matter converges to recalcitrant molecules (those that resist degradation) of low molecular mass and high molecular diversity through biotic and abiotic processes. Here we demonstrate that the molecular composition and properties of dissolved organic matter continuously change during soil passage and propose that this reflects a continual shifting of its sources. Using ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, we studied the molecular changes of dissolved organic matter from the soil surface to 60 cm depth in 20 temperate grassland communities in soil type Eutric Fluvisol. Applying a semi-quantitative approach, we observed that plant-derived molecules were first broken down into molecules containing a large proportion of low-molecular-mass compounds. These low-molecular-mass compounds became less abundant during soil passage, whereas larger molecules, depleted in plant-related ligno-cellulosic structures, became more abundant. These findings indicate that the small plant-derived molecules were preferentially consumed by microorganisms and transformed into larger microbial-derived molecules. This suggests that dissolved organic matter is not intrinsically recalcitrant but instead persists in soil as a result of simultaneous consumption, transformation and formation.
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We thank U. Gerighausen for sampling and K. Klapproth for technical support with FT-ICR-MS measurements. This work was supported by the Zwillenberg-Tietz Stiftung and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft as part of the Critical Zone Observatory ‘AquaDiva’ (CRC 1076) and the Jena Experiment (FOR 1451, GL 262/14 and GL 262/19). The International Max Planck Research School for Global Biogeochemical Cycles (IMPRS-gBGC) provided the funding for the PhD scholarships of P.G.M.-V. and C.S.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Supplementary Figures 1−6 and Tables 1−4.