Humus and Humic Substance


Humus is defined as a brown to black complex variable of carbon containing compounds not recognized under a light microscope as possessing cellular organization in the form of plant and animal bodies. Humus is separated from the non humic substances such as carbohydrates (a major fraction of soil carbon), fats, waxes, alkanes, peptides, amino acids, proteins, lipids and organic acids by the fact that distinct chemical formulae can be written for these non humic substances. Most small molecules of non humic substances are rapidly degraded by microorganisms within the soil. In contrast soil humus is slow to decompose (degrade) under natural soil conditions. When in combination with soil minerals soil humus can persist in the soil for several hundred years. Humus is the major soil organic matter component, making up 65% to 75% of the total. Humus assumes an important role as a fertility component of all soils, far in excess of the percentage contribution it makes to the total soil mass.


Humic substances are the components of humus and as such are high molecular weight compounds that together form the brown to black hydrophilic, molecularly flexible, polyelectrolytes called humus. Many of the components of humus are heterogenous, relatively large stable organic complexes. They function to give the soil structure, porosity, water holding capacity, cation and anion exchange, and are involved in the chelation of mineral elements. The elemental analysis of humic substances reveals that they are primarily composed of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur in complex carbon chains (aliphatic components that make up approximately 40% 50% of the total) C C C C and 4, 5, and 6 member carbon rings (aromatic components that make up 35 60% of the total) with C C, C N and C=O groupings.

Preliminary understandings about how humic substances are formed is based on 4 published theories: (1) Lignin modification, (2) Quinone Amino Acid Interaction, (3) Microbial Synthesis of Aromatics, and (4) The Mallard Reaction (a sugar amino acid reaction sequence). Each theory describes complicated biotic and abiotic reactions in which a variety of organic compounds, such as phenolic compounds (eg. lignins), complex carbohydrates, and nitrogenous substances are resynthesized to form large complex polymers. In order for these polymerization reactions to proceed inorganic mineral catalysts must be present. Therefore, the availability of trace minerals is a requirement for the formation of humic substance. The extreme variability in the molecular features of humic substances relates back to the precursor compounds and the environmental conditions under which the humic substances formed.

Humic substances have been shown to contain a wide variety of molecular components. Some typical components are: polysaccharides; fatty acids; polypeptides; lignins; esters; phenols; ethers; carbonyls; quinones; lipids: peroxides; various combination of benzene, acetal, ketal, and lactol, and furan ringed compounds; and aliphatic (carbon chains) compounds. The oxidative degradation of some humic substances produces aliphatic, phenolic, and benzenecarboxylic acids in addition to n alkanes and n fatty acids. The major phenolic acids released contain approximately 3 hydroxyl ( OH) groups and between 1 and 5 carboxyl ( COOH) groups.

Humic substances can be subdivided into three major fractions (1) HUMIN, (2) HUMIC ACIDS (HAs), and (3) FULVIC ACIDS (FAs). These sub divisions are arbitrarily based on the solubility of each fraction in water adjusted to different acid alkaline (pH levels) conditions. Some of the major features of humic substances are summarized in Figure 1.

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