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With the increased occurrence of wildfires around the world, interest in the chemistry of pyrogenic organic matter (pyOM) and its fate in the environment has increased. Upon leaching from soils by rain events, significant amounts of dissolved pyOM (pyDOM) enter the aquatic environment and interact with microbial communities that are essential for cycling organic matter within the different biogeochemical cycles. To evaluate the biodegradability of pyDOM, aqueous extracts of laboratory-produced biochars were incubated with soil microbes, and the molecular changes to the composition of pyDOM were probed using ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry (Fourier transform–ion cyclotron resonance–mass spectrometry). Given that solar irradiation significantly affects the composition of pyDOM during terrestrial-to-marine export, the effects of photochemistry were also evaluated in the context of pyDOM biodegradability.

Ultrahigh-resolution mass spectrometry revealed that many different (both aromatic and aliphatic) compounds were biodegraded. New labile compounds were produced, 22 %–40 % of which were peptide-like. These results indicated that a portion of pyDOM has been labilized into microbial biomass during the incubations. Fluorescence excitation–emission matrix spectra revealed that some fraction of these new bio-produced molecules is associated with proteinaceous fluorophores. Two-dimensional 1H–1H total correlation nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy identified a peptidoglycan-like backbone within the microbially produced compounds. These results are consistent with previous observations of peptidoglycans within the soil and ocean nitrogen cycles where remnants of biodegraded pyDOM are expected to be observed.

Interestingly, the exact nature of the bio-produced organic matter was found to vary drastically among samples indicating that the microbial consortium used may produce different exudates based on the composition of the initial pyDOM. Another potential explanation for the vast diversity of molecules is that microbes only consume low molecular-weight compounds, but they also produce reactive oxygen species (ROS), which initiate oxidative and recombination reactions that degrade high molecular-weight compounds and produce new molecules. Some of the bio-produced molecules (212–308 molecular formulas) were identified in estuarine and marine (surface and abyssal oceanic), and 81–192 of these formulas were of molecular composition attributed to carboxyl-rich alicyclic molecules (CRAM). These results indicate that some of the pyDOM biodegradation products have an oceanic fate and can be sequestered into the deep ocean. The observed microbially mediated diversification of pyDOM suggests that pyDOM contributes to the observed large complexity of natural organic matter observed in riverine and oceanic systems. More broadly, our research shows that pyDOM can be substrate for microbial growth and be incorporated into environmental food webs within the global carbon and nitrogen cycles.


© Authors 2022.

This work is distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) License.

Original Publication Citation

Goranov, A. I., Wozniak, A. S., Bostick, K. W., Zimmerman, A. R., Mitra, S., & Hatcher, P. G. (2022). Microbial labilization and diversification of pyrogenic dissolved organic matter. Biogeosciences, 19(5), 1491-1514.


0000-0002-5103-0838 (Goranov)