Geophysical Research Letters

Direct Visualization of Individual Aromatic Compound Structures in Low Molecular Weight Marine Dissolved Organic Carbon

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Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is the largest pool of exchangeable organic carbon in the ocean. However, less than 10% of DOC has been molecularly characterized in the deep ocean to understand DOC's recalcitrance. Here we analyze the radiocarbon (14C) depleted, and presumably refractory, low molecular weight (LMW) DOC from the North Central Pacific using atomic force microscopy to produce the first atomic-resolution images of individual LMW DOC molecules. We evaluate surface and deep LMW DOC chemical structures in the context of their relative persistence and recalcitrance. Atomic force microscopy resolved planar structures with features similar to polycyclic aromatic compounds and carboxylic-rich alicyclic structures with less than five aromatic carbon rings. These compounds comprise 8% and 20% of the measurable molecules investigated in the surface and deep, respectively. Resolving the structures of individual DOC molecules represents a step forward in molecular characterization of DOC and in understanding its long-term stability.