Dissolved organic carbon

Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is the fraction of total organic carbon operationally defined as that which can pass through a filter size that typically ranges in size from 0.22 and 0.7 micrometers.[1] The fraction remaining on the filter is called particulate organic carbon (POC).[2]

DOC is abundant in marine and freshwater systems and is one of the greatest cycled reservoirs of organic matter on Earth, accounting for the same amount of carbon as the atmosphere and up to 20% of all organic carbon.[3] In general, organic carbon compounds are the result of decomposition processes from dead organic matter including plants and animals. DOC can originate from within or external to the body of water. DOC originating from within the body of water is known as autochthonous DOC and typically comes from aquatic plants or algae, while DOC originating external to the body of water is known as allochthonous DOC and typically comes from soils or terrestrial plants.[4] When water originates from land areas with a high proportion of organic soils, these components can drain into rivers and lakes as DOC.


The dissolved fraction of total organic carbon (TOC) is an operational classification. Many researchers use the term "dissolved" for compounds that pass through a 0.45 μm filter, but 0.22 μm filters have also been used to remove higher colloidal concentrations.

A practical definition of dissolved typically used in marine chemistry is all substances that pass through a GF/F filter, which has a nominal pore size of approximately 0.7 μm (Whatman glass microfiber filter, 0.6–0.8 μm particle retention[5]). The recommended procedure is the HTCO technique, which calls for filtration through pre-combusted glass fiber filters, typically the GF/F classification.[6]


DOC is a food supplement, supporting growth of microorganisms and plays an important role in the global carbon cycle through the microbial loop.[7] In some organisms (stages) that do not feed in the traditional sense, dissolved matter may be the only external food source.[8] Moreover, DOC is an indicator of organic loadings in streams, as well as supporting terrestrial processing (e.g., within soil, forests, and wetlands) of organic matter. Dissolved organic carbon has a high proportion of biodegradable dissolved organic carbon (BDOC) in first order streams compared to higher order streams. In the absence of extensive wetlands, bogs, or swamps, baseflow concentrations of DOC in undisturbed watersheds generally range from approximately 1 to 20 mg/L carbon. Carbon concentrations considerably vary across ecosystems. For example, the Everglades may be near the top of the range and the middle of oceans may be near the bottom. Occasionally, high concentrations of organic carbon indicate anthropogenic influences, but most DOC originates naturally.

The BDOC fraction consists of organic molecules that heterotrophic bacteria can use as a source of energy and carbon. Some subset of DOC constitutes the precursors of disinfection byproducts for drinking water. BDOC can contribute to undesirable biological regrowth within water distribution systems.


More precise measurement techniques developed in the late 1990s have allowed for a good understanding of how dissolved organic carbon is distributed in marine environments both vertically and across the surface.[9] It is now understood that dissolved organic carbon in the ocean spans a range from very labile to very refractory. The labile dissolved organic carbon is mainly produced by marine organisms and is consumed in the surface ocean, and consists of sugars, proteins, and other compounds that are easily used by marine bacteria.[10] The refractory dissolved organic carbon is evenly spread throughout the water column and consists of high molecular weight and structurally complex compounds that are difficult for marine organisms to use such as the lignin, pollen, or humic acids.[11] Therefore, the observed vertical distribution consists of high concentrations in the upper water column and low concentrations at depth.

In addition to vertical distributions, horizontal distributions have been modeled and sampled as well.[12] In the surface ocean at a depth of 30 meters, the higher dissolved organic carbon concentrations are found in the South Pacific Gyre, the South Atlantic Gyre, and the Indian Ocean. At a depth of 3,000 meters, highest concentrations are in the North Atlantic Deep Water where dissolved organic carbon from the high concentration surface ocean is removed to depth. While in the northern Indian Ocean high DOC is observed due to high fresh water flux and sediments. Since the time scales of horizontal motion along the ocean bottom are in the thousands of years, the refractory dissolved organic carbon is slowly consumed on its way from the North Atlantic and reaches a minimum in the North Pacific.

Interaction with metals

DOC is also extremely important in the transport of metals in aquatic systems. Metals form complexes with DOC, enhancing metal solubility while also reducing metal bioavailability.

See also


  1. "Organic Carbon". Bio-geochemical Methods. Retrieved 2018-11-27.
  2. Kenny, Jonathan E.; Bida, Morgan; Pagano, Todd (October 2014). "Trends in Levels of Allochthonous Dissolved Organic Carbon in Natural Water: A Review of Potential Mechanisms under a Changing Climate". Water. 6 (10): 2862–2897. doi:10.3390/w6102862.
  3. Hedges, John I. (3 December 1991). "Global biogeochemical cycles: progress and problems" (PDF). Marine Chemistry. 39 (1–3): 67–93. doi:10.1016/0304-4203(92)90096-s.
  4. Kritzberg, Emma S.; Cole, Jonathan J.; Pace, Michael L.; Granéli, Wilhelm; Bade, Darren L. (March 2004). "Autochthonous versus allochthonous carbon sources of bacteria: Results from whole-lake 13C addition experiments" (PDF). Limnology and Oceanography. 49 (2): 588–596. doi:10.4319/lo.2004.49.2.0588. ISSN 0024-3590.
  5. "Whatman® glass microfiber filters, Grade GF/F". Merck.
  6. Knap, A. Michaels; A. Close; A. Ducklow; H. Dickson, A. (1994). Protocols for the Joint Global Ocean Flux studies (JGOFS) core measurements. JGOFS.
  7. Kirchman, David L.; Suzuki, Yoshimi; Garside, Christopher; Ducklow, Hugh W. (15 August 1991). "High turnover rates of dissolved organic carbon during a spring phytoplankton bloom". Nature. 352 (6336): 612–614. Bibcode:1991Natur.352..612K. doi:10.1038/352612a0.
  8. Jaeckle, W.B.; Manahan, D.T. (1989). "Feeding by a "nonfeeding" larva: uptake of dissolved amino acids from seawater by lecithotrophic larvae of the gastropod Haliotis rufescens". Marine Biology. 103: 87–94. doi:10.1007/BF00391067.
  9. Sharp, Jonathan H. (6 August 1996). "Marine dissolved organic carbon: Are the older values correct?". Marine Chemistry. 56 (3–4): 265–277. doi:10.1016/S0304-4203(96)00075-8.
  10. Sondergaard, Morten; Mathias Middelboe (9 March 1995). "A cross-system analysis of labile dissolved organic carbon" (PDF). Marine Ecology Progress Series. 118: 283–294. Bibcode:1995MEPS..118..283S. doi:10.3354/meps118283.
  11. Gruber, David F.; Jean-Paul Simjouw; Sybil P. Seitzinger; Gary L. Taghon (June 2006). "Dynamics and Characterization of Refractory Dissolved Organic Matter Produced by a Pure Bacterial Culture in an Experimental Predator-Prey System". Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 72 (6): 4184–4191. doi:10.1128/AEM.02882-05. PMC 1489638. PMID 16751530.
  12. Hansell, Dennis A.; Craig A. Carlson; Daniel J. Repeta; Reiner Schlitzer (2009). "Dissolved Organic Matter in the Ocean: A Controversy Stimulates New Insights". Oceanography. 22 (4): 202–211. doi:10.5670/oceanog.2009.109. hdl:1912/3183.
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