Structural Characterization of Natural Nickel and Copper Binding Ligands along the US GEOTRACES Eastern Pacific Zonal Transect Academic Article uri icon


  • Organic ligands form strong complexes with many trace elements in seawater. Various metals can compete for the same ligand chelation sites, and the final speciation of bound metals is determined by relative binding affinities, concentrations of binding sites, uncomplexed metal concentrations, and association/dissociation kinetics. Different ligands have a wide range of metal affinities and specificities. However, the chemical composition of these ligands in the marine environment remains poorly constrained, which has hindered progress in modeling marine metal speciation. In this study, we detected and characterized natural ligands that bind copper (Cu) and nickel (Ni) in the eastern South Pacific Ocean with liquid chromatography tandem inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LC-ICPMS), and high-resolution electrospray ionization mass spectrometry (ESIMS). Dissolved Cu, Ni, and ligand concentrations were highest near the coast. Chromatographically unresolved polar compounds dominated ligands isolated near the coast by solid phase extraction. Offshore, metal and ligand concentrations decreased, but several new ligands appeared. One major ligand was detected that bound both Cu2+ and Ni2+. Based on accurate mass and fragmentation measurements, this compound has a molecular formula of [C20H21N4O8S2+M]+ (M = metal isotope) and contains several azole-like metal binding groups. Additional lipophilic Ni complexes were also present only in oligotrophic waters, with masses of 649, 698, and 712 m/z (corresponding to the 58Ni metal complex). Molecular formulae of [C32H54N3O6S2Ni]+ and [C33H56N3O6S2Ni]+ were determined for two of these compounds. Addition of Cu and Ni to the samples also revealed the presence of additional compounds that can bind both Ni and Cu. Although these specific compounds represent a small fraction of the total dissolved Cu and Ni pool, they highlight the compositional diversity and spatial heterogeneity of marine Ni and Cu ligands, as well as variability in the extent to which different metals in the same environment compete for ligand binding.

publication date

  • November 30, 2016