Composition, dynamics, and fate of leached dissolved organic matter in terrestrial ecosystems: Results from a decomposition experiment

Cory C. Cleveland, Jason C. Neff, Alan R. Townsend, Eran Hood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

228 Scopus citations


Fluxes of dissolved organic matter (DOM) are an important vector for the movement of carbon (C) and nutrients both within and between ecosystems. However, although DOM fluxes from throughfall and through litterfall can be large, little is known about the fate of DOM leached from plant canopies, or from the litter layer into the soil horizon. In this study, our objectives were to determine the importance of plant-litter leachate as a vehicle for DOM movement, and to track DOM decomposition [including dissolve organic carbon (DOC) and dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) fractions], as well as DOM chemical and isotopic dynamics, during a long-term laboratory incubation experiment using fresh leaves and litter from several ecosystem types. The water-extractable fraction of organic C was high for all five plant species, as was the biodegradable fraction; in most cases, more than 70% of the initial DOM was decomposed in the first 10 days of the experiment. The chemical composition of the DOM changed as decomposition proceeded, with humic (hydrophobic) fractions becoming relatively more abundant than nonhumic (hydrophilic) fractions over time. However, in spite of proportional changes in humic and nonhumic fractions over time, our data suggest that both fractions are readily decomposed in the absence of physicochemical reactions with soil surfaces. Our data also showed no changes in the δ13C signature of DOM during decomposition, suggesting that isotopic fractionation during DOM uptake is not a significant process. These results suggest that soil microorganisms preferentially decompose more labile organic molecules in the DOM pool, which also tend to be isotopically heavier than more recalcitrant DOM fractions. We believe that the interaction between DOM decomposition dynamics and soil sorption processes contribute to the δ13C enrichment of soil organic matter commonly observed with depth in soil profiles.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)275-285
Number of pages11
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2004


  • Carbon-isotope ratio
  • Decomposition
  • Dissolved organic carbon (DOC)
  • Dissolved organic matter (DOM)
  • Humic substances
  • Isotopic fractionation
  • Leaf litter


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