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Biogeochemical Processes That Produce Dissolved Organic Matter From Wheat Straw

By Robert L. Wershaw1, David W. Rutherford1, Jerry A. Leenheer1, Kay R. Kennedy1, Larry G. Cox1, and Donald R. Koci2


The chemical reactions that lead to the formation of dissolved organic matter (DOM) in natural waters are poorly understood. Studies on the formation of DOM generally are complicated because almost all DOM isolates have been derived from mixtures of plant species composed of a wide variety of different types of precursor compounds for DOM formation. This report describes a study of DOM derived mainly from bales of wheat straw that had been left in a field for several years. During this period of time, black water from the decomposing wheat straw accumulated in pools in the field. The nuclear magnetic resonance and infrared spectra of the black water DOM indicate that it is composed almost entirely of lignin and carbohydrate polymeric units. Analysis by high-performance size-exclusion chromatography with multi-angle laser-light scattering detection indicates that the number average molecular weight of the DOM is 124,000 daltons. The results presented in this report indicate that the black water DOM is composed of hemicellulose chains cross-linked to lignin oligomers. These types of structures have been shown to exist in the hemicellulose matrix of plant cell walls. The cross-linked lignin-hemicellulose complexes apparently were released from partially degraded wheat-straw cell walls with little alteration. In solution in the black water, these lignin-hemicellulose polymers fold into compact globular particles in which the nonpolar parts of the polymer form the interiors of the particles and the polar groups are on the exterior surfaces of the particles. The tightly folded, compact conformation of these particles probably renders them relatively resistant to microbial degradation. This should be especially the case for the aromatic lignin structures that will be buried in the interiors of the particles.

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