Dilution limits dissolved organic carbon utilization in the deep ocean

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Science  17 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6232, pp. 331-333
DOI: 10.1126/science.1258955

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Dilution solves the recalcitrance question

The deep ocean is full of dissolved organic carbon, some of which has remained unchanged for thousands of years. What makes these compounds so resistant to microbial degradation? Perhaps their chemical structures make them intrinsically difficult to metabolize? In contrast, Arrieta et al. show that they are simply too dilute to be viable sources of energy for microorganisms (see the Perspective by Middleburg). Further experiments show that if these seemingly recalcitrant organic molecules are concentrated, the ambient microbes can consume them.

Science, this issue p. 331; see also p. 290


Oceanic dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is the second largest reservoir of organic carbon in the biosphere. About 72% of the global DOC inventory is stored in deep oceanic layers for years to centuries, supporting the current view that it consists of materials resistant to microbial degradation. An alternative hypothesis is that deep-water DOC consists of many different, intrinsically labile compounds at concentrations too low to compensate for the metabolic costs associated to their utilization. Here, we present experimental evidence showing that low concentrations rather than recalcitrance preclude consumption of a substantial fraction of DOC, leading to slow microbial growth in the deep ocean. These findings demonstrate an alternative mechanism for the long-term storage of labile DOC in the deep ocean, which has been hitherto largely ignored.

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