14C and 13C characteristics of higher plant biomarkers in Washington margin surface sediments Academic Article uri icon


  • Plant wax lipids and lignin phenols are the two most common classes of molecular markers that are used to trace vascular plant-derived OM in the marine environment. However, their 13C and 14C compositions have not been directly compared, which can be used to constrain the flux and attenuation of terrestrial carbon in marine environment. In this study, we describe a revised method of isolating individual lignin phenols from complex sedimentary matrices for 14C analysis using high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) and compare this approach to a method utilizing preparative capillary gas chromatography (PCGC). We then examine in detail the 13C and 14C compositions of plant wax lipids and lignin phenols in sediments from the inner and mid shelf of the Washington margin that are influenced by discharge of the Columbia River. Plant wax lipids (including n-alkanes, n-alkanoic (fatty) acids, n-alkanols, and n-aldehydes) displayed significant variability in both ?13C (-28.3 to -37.5 ‰) and ?14C values (-204 to +2 ‰), suggesting varied inputs and/or continental storage and transport histories. In contrast, lignin phenols exhibited similar ?13C values (between -30 to -34 ‰) and a relatively narrow range of ?14C values (-45 to -150 ‰; HPLC-based mesurement) that were similar to, or younger than, bulk OM (-195 to -137 ‰). Moreover, lignin phenol 14C age correlated with the degradation characteristics of this terrestrial biopolymer in that vanillyl phenols were on average ~500 years older than syringyl and cinnamyl phenols that degrade faster in soils and sediments. The isotopic characteristics, abundance, and distribution of lignin phenols in sediments suggest that they serve as promising tracers of recently biosynthesized terrestrial OM during supply to, and dispersal within the marine environment. Lignin phenol 14C measurements may also provide useful constraints on the vascular plant end member in isotopic mixing models for carbon source apportionment, and for interpretation of sedimentary records of past vegetation dynamics. Key words: 14C and 13C composition, radiocarbon age, plant wax lipids, lignin phenols, Washington margin, marine carbon cycling, terrestrial organic matter

publication date

  • March 2013