, Volume 146, Issue 3, pp 209–256 | Cite as

Anhydrosugars as tracers in the Earth system

  • Loredana G. SuciuEmail author
  • Caroline A. Masiello
  • Robert J. Griffin
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


Wild and prescribed fires are important sources of a broad suite of organic compounds collectively termed pyrogenic carbon (PyC). Most PyC compounds have additional sources beyond fire, adding uncertainty to their use as tracers. However, members of the anhydrosugar family of isomeric compounds—levoglucosan, galactosan and mannosan—are generated exclusively by the pyrolysis and combustion of cellulose and hemicellulose. Although anhydrosugars are some of the only unique organic markers for fire, they have not yet seen wide use as tracers in terrestrial or marine research because our understanding of their biogeochemistry and transport through the Earth system is poorly constrained. Anhydrosugars are chemically reactive in all phases (gaseous, aqueous and particulate), molecularly diffusive in semisolid matter, semivolatile, water-soluble, and biodegradable. Their chemical composition also suggests that they sorb to soil mineral surfaces. Together, these characteristics mean that anhydrosugars are not conservative tracers. While these traits have historically been perceived as drawbacks, here we argue that these characteristics present opportunities for new research avenues, including tracking organic matter transport and degradation in multiple environments. We review evidence for anhydrosugar production, degradation and detection in various environments, and use this information to propose new research on PyC and organic matter in the Earth system.


Anhydrosugars Fire tracers Pyrogenic carbon Carbon cycle Paleoclimate Terrestrial organic matter 



This study was supported partially by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant AGS-1552086. We thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism that helped us to improve the manuscript.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Loredana G. Suciu
    • 1
    Email author
  • Caroline A. Masiello
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Robert J. Griffin
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary SciencesRice UniversityHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Department of BiosciencesRice UniversityHoustonUSA
  3. 3.Department of ChemistryRice UniversityHoustonUSA
  4. 4.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringRice UniversityHoustonUSA

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