Ph.D. Thesis
Published: February 1, 2017
C-DEBI Contribution Number: 359


Organic carbon (OC) preserved in marine sediments acts as a reduced carbon sink that balances the global carbon cycle. Understanding the biogeochemical mechanisms underpinning the balance between OC preservation and degradation is thus critical both to quantifying this carbon reservoir and to estimating the extent of life in the deep subsurface biosphere. This work utilizes bulk and spatially-resolved X-ray absorption spectroscopy to characterize the OC content and composition of various environmental systems in order to identify the role of minerals and surrounding geochemistry in organic carbon preservation in sediments. Biogenic manganese (Mn) oxides formed either in pure cultures of Mn-oxidizing microorganisms, in incubations of brackish estuarine waters, or as ferromanganese deposits in karstic cave systems rapidly associate with OC following precipitation. This association is stable despite Mn oxide structural ripening, suggesting that mineral-associated OC could persist during early diagenetic reactions. OC associated with bacteriogenic Mn oxides is primarily proteinaceous, including intact proteins involved in Mn oxidation and likely oxide nucleation and aggregation. Pelagic sediments from 16 sites underlying the South Pacific and North Atlantic gyres and spanning a gradient of sediment age and redox state were analyzed in order to contrast the roles of oxygen exposure, OC recalcitrance, and mineral-based protection of OC as preservation mechanisms. OC and nitrogen concentrations measured at these sites are among the lowest globally (<0.1%) and, to a first order, scale with sediment oxygenation. In the deep subsurface, however, molecular recalcitrance becomes more important than oxygen exposure time in protecting OC against remineralization. Deep OC consists of primarily amide and carboxylic carbon in a scaffolding of aliphatic and O-alkyl moieties, corroborating the extremely low C/N values observed. These findings suggest that microbes in oxic pelagic sediments are carbon-limited and may preferentially remove carbon relative to nitrogen from the organic matter pool. As a whole, this work documents how interactions with mineral surfaces and exposure to oxygen generate a reservoir of OC stabilized in sediments on at least 25-million year time scales.