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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Thermodynamically controlled preservation of organic carbon in floodplains

  • Author(s): Boye, K
  • Noël, V
  • Tfaily, MM
  • Bone, SE
  • Williams, KH
  • Bargar, JR
  • Fendorf, S
  • et al.

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Organic matter decomposition in soils and terrestrial sediments has a prominent role in the global carbon cycle. Carbon stocks in anoxic environments, such as wetlands and the subsurface of floodplains, are large and presumed to decompose slowly. The degree of microbial respiration in anoxic environments is typically thought to depend on the energetics of available terminal electron acceptors such as nitrate or sulfate; microbes couple the reduction of these compounds to the oxidation of organic carbon. However, it is also possible that the energetics of the organic carbon itself can determine whether it is decomposed. Here we examined water-soluble organic carbon by Fourier-transform ion-cyclotron-resonance mass spectrometry to compare the chemical composition and average nominal oxidation state of carbon-A metric reflecting whether microbial oxidation of organic matter is thermodynamically favourable-in anoxic (sulfidic) and oxic (non-sulfidic) floodplain sediments. We observed distinct minima in the average nominal oxidation state of water-soluble carbon in sediments exhibiting anoxic, sulfate-reducing conditions, suggesting preservation of carbon compounds with nominal oxidation states below the threshold that makes microbial sulfate reduction thermodynamically favourable. We conclude that thermodynamic limitations constitute an important complement to other mechanisms of carbon preservation, such as enzymatic restrictions and mineral association, within anaerobic environments.

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