Biogeochemistry of mineral-organic associations across a long-term mineralogical soil gradient (0.3-4100 kyr), Hawaiian Islands

Robert Mikutta, Gabriele E. Schaumann, Daniela Gildemeister, Steeve Bonneville, Marc G. Kramer, Jon Chorover, Oliver A. Chadwick, Georg Guggenberger

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178 Scopus citations


Organic matter (OM) in mineral-organic associations (MOAs) represents a large fraction of carbon in terrestrial ecosystems which is considered stable against biodegradation. To assess the role of MOAs in carbon cycling, there is a need to better understand (i) the time-dependent biogeochemical evolution of MOAs in soil, (ii) the effect of the mineral composition on the physico-chemical properties of attached OM, and (iii) the resulting consequences for the stabilization of OM. We studied the development of MOAs across a mineralogical soil gradient (0.3-4100 kyr) at the Hawaiian Islands that derived from basaltic tephra under comparable climatic and hydrological regimes. Mineral-organic associations were characterized using biomarker analyses of OM with chemolytic methods (lignin phenols, non-cellulosic carbohydrates) and wet chemical extractions, surface area/porosity measurements (N2 at 77 K and CO2 at 273 K), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), transmission electron microscopy (TEM), and differential scanning calorimetry (DSC). The results show that in the initial weathering stage (0.3 kyr), MOAs are mainly composed of primary, low-surface area minerals (olivine, pyroxene, feldspar) with small amounts of attached OM and lignin phenols but a large contribution of microbial-derived carbohydrates. As high-surface area, poorly crystalline (PC) minerals increase in abundance during the second weathering stage (20-400 kyr), the content of mineral-associated OM increased sharply, up to 290 mg C/g MOA, with lignin phenols being favored over carbohydrates in the association with minerals. In the third and final weathering stage (1400-4100 kyr), metastable PC phases transformed into well crystalline secondary Fe and Al (hydr)oxides and kaolin minerals that were associated with less OM overall, and depleted in both lignin and carbohydrate as a fraction of total OM. XPS, the N2 pore volume data and OM-mineral volumetric ratios suggest that, in contrast to the endmember sites where OM accumulated at the surfaces of larger mineral grains, topsoil MOAs of the 20-400-kyr sites are composed of a homogeneous admixture of small-sized PC minerals and OM, which originated from both adsorption and precipitation processes. The chemical composition of OM in surface-horizon MOAs, however, was largely controlled by the uniform source vegetation irrespective of the substrate age whereas in subsoil horizons, aromatic and carboxylic C correlated positively with oxalate-extractable Al and Si and CuCl2-extractable Al concentrations representing PC aluminosilicates and Al-organic complexes (r2 > 0.85). Additionally, XPS depth profiles suggest a zonal structure of sorbed OM with aromatic carbons being enriched in the proximity of mineral surfaces and amide carbons (peptides/proteins) being located in outer regions of MOAs. Albeit the mineralogical and compositional changes of OM, the rigidity of mineral-associated OM as analyzed by DSC changed little over time. A significantly reduced side chain mobility of sorbed OM was, however, observed in subsoil MOAs, which likely arose from stronger mineral-organic bindings. In conclusion, our study shows that the properties of soil MOAs change substantially over time with different mineral assemblages favoring the association of different types of OM, which is further accentuated by a vertical gradient of OM composition on mineral surfaces. Factors supporting the stabilization of sorbed OM were (i) the surface area and reactivity of minerals (primary or secondary crystalline minerals versus PC secondary minerals), (ii) the association of OM with micropores of PC minerals (via 'sterically' enhanced adsorption), (iii) the effective embedding of OM in 'well mixed' arrays with PC minerals and monomeric/polymeric metal species, (iv) the inherent stability of acidic aromatic OM components, and (iv) an impaired segmental mobility of sorbed OM, which might increase its stability against desorption and microbial utilization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2034-2060
Number of pages27
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
Issue number7
StatePublished - Apr 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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