Dissertation: Characterisation of natural dissolved organic matter with liquid chromatography and high resolution mass spectrometry

Claudia Patriarca will defend her thesis.
Opponent: Dr Norbert Hertkorn, Helmholtz Zentrum München, German Research Center for Environmental Health


Dissolved organic matter (DOM) is one of the most heterogeneous and complex mixture on Earth. DOM plays a crucial role in biogeochemical processes on the global scale and it is essential to sustain and regulate the biological processes in aquatic ecosystems. DOM originates from a multitude of biological, physical and chemical transformations, leading to its phenomenal chemical diversity. In order to understand and predict its effect on the global carbon cycle, an intimate characterization at molecular level is necessary. The investigation of the extraordinary complexity of the DOM mixture represents a compelling challenge for analytical chemistry. The focus of this thesis was the development of methods for the characterization of DOM in natural waters. High resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS), was combined with high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) and electrospray ionization (ESI), to investigate the chemical diversity of DOM. The first study demonstrated that cutting-edge techniques (such as the Fourier-transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometer - FTICR-MS), are not indispensable to disclose essential information on the DOM molecular composition, in fact the Orbitrap mass analyser is a suitable alternative for the analysis of complex natural mixtures. In the second study, the potential benefits offered by the online coupling of HPLC and HRMS instruments were explored, revealing significant advantages in terms of analysis time, achievable information and versatility of the method. The advantages of online separation were further confirmed in the third study, focused on the characterization of autochthonous labile DOM. Chromatographically resolved profiles emerged from the bulk-DOM, allowing the monitoring of labile autochthonous components in presence of heterotrophic bacteria. Despite the advantages achieved by the application of online separation, a strong limiting factor in DOM characterization is the ESI source, suitable only for the analysis of the DOM fraction susceptible to ionization. In the last study, the extent of the DOM material prone to ionization was estimated, revealing the occurrence of an extensive portion of the material resistant to routinely employed ESI approach. The full characterization of DOM is still an open challenge and the combination of multiple techniques is fundamental to unravel is extreme intricacy.