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Isotope alteration caused by changes in biochemical composition of sedimentary organic matter

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Stable carbon (C) and nitrogen (N) isotope ratios of sedimentary organic matter (OM) can reflect the biogeochemical history of aquatic ecosystems. However, diagenetic processes in sediments may alter isotope records of OM via microbial activity and preferential degradation of isotopically distinct organic components. This study investigated the isotope alteration caused by preferential degradation in surface sediments sampled from a eutrophic reservoir in Germany. Sediments were treated sequentially with hot water extraction, hydrochloric acid hydrolysis, hydrogen peroxide oxidation and di-sodium peroxodisulfate oxidation to chemically simulate preferential degradation pathways of sedimentary OM. Residue and extracts from each extraction step were analyzed using elemental analyzer-isotope ratio mass spectrometry and solid-state 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. Our results show that stable C and N isotope ratios reacted differently to changes in the biochemical composition of sedimentary OM. Preferential degradation of proteins and carbohydrates resulted in a 1.2‰ depletion of 13C, while the isotope composition of 15N remained nearly the same. Sedimentary δ15N values were notably altered when lignins and lipids were oxidized from residual sediments. Throughout the sequential fractionation procedure, δ13C was linearly correlated with the C:N of residual sediments. This finding demonstrates that changes in biochemical composition caused by preferential degradation altered δ13C values of sedimentary OM, while this trend was not observed for δ15N values. Our study identifies the influence of preferential degradation on stable C isotope ratios and provide additional insight into the isotope alteration caused by post-depositional processes.

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This study was supported by a grant to X.Q. Liu from the China Scholarship Council. We acknowledge Ines Locker for the elemental and isotopic analyses of all the solid samples, Christian Hanke for measuring isotope ratios in the extraction solutes and Katrin Wendt-Potthoff for critical reading and English editing.

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Liu, X., Hilfert, L., Barth, J.A.C. et al. Isotope alteration caused by changes in biochemical composition of sedimentary organic matter. Biogeochemistry 147, 277–292 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-020-00640-3

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  • Biochemical composition
  • Organic matter
  • Stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios
  • Preferential degradation
  • Sediment