Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) is the main energy source for marine heterotrophic microorganisms, but a small fraction of DOC resists microbial degradation and accumulates in the ocean. The reason behind this recalcitrance is unknown. We test whether the long-term stability of DOC requires the existence of structurally refractory molecules, using a mechanistic model comprising a diverse network of microbe-substrate interactions. Model experiments reproduce three salient observations, even when all DOC compounds are equally degradable: (i) >15% of an initial DOC pulse resists degradation, but is consumed by microbes if concentrated, (ii) the modelled deep-sea DOC reaches stable concentrations of 30–40 mmolC/m3, and (iii) the mean age of deep-sea DOC is several times the age of deep water with a wide range from <100 to >10,000 years. We conclude that while structurally-recalcitrant molecules exist, they are not required in the model to explain either the amount or longevity of DOC.
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