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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Dec 6;108(49):19473-81. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1017982108. Epub 2011 Nov 21.

The role of terrestrially derived organic carbon in the coastal ocean: a changing paradigm and the priming effect.

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Department of Oceanography, Texas A&M University, College Station, TX 77843, USA.

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  • Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2012 Mar 27;109(13):5134.


One of the major conundrums in oceanography for the past 20 y has been that, although the total flux of dissolved organic carbon (OC; DOC) discharged annually to the global ocean can account for the turnover time of all oceanic DOC (ca. 4,000-6,000 y), chemical biomarker and stable isotopic data indicate that there is very little terrestrially derived OC (TerrOC) in the global ocean. Similarly, it has been estimated that only 30% of the TerrOC buried in marine sediments is of terrestrial origin in muddy deltaic regions with high sedimentation rates. If vascular plant material--assumed to be highly resistant to decay--makes up much of the DOC and particulate OC of riverine OC (along with soil OC), why do we not see more TerrOC in coastal and oceanic waters and sediments? An explanation for this "missing" TerrOC in the ocean is critical in our understanding of the global carbon cycle. Here, I consider the origin of vascular plants, the major component of TerrOC, and how their appearance affected the overall cycling of OC on land. I also examine the role vascular plant material plays in soil OC, inland aquatic ecosystems, and the ocean, and how our understanding of TerrOC and "priming" processes in these natural systems has gained considerable interests in the terrestrial literature, but has largely been ignored in the aquatic sciences. Finally, I close by postulating that priming is in fact an important process that needs to be incorporated into global carbon models in the context of climate change.

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