Compositional characterization of soil organic matter and hot-water-extractable organic matter in organic horizons using a molecular mixing model

Ankit Balaria, Chris E. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Purpose: Microbial decomposition of soil organic matter (SOM) is generally believed to be heterogeneous, resulting in the preferential loss of labile compounds such as carbohydrates and proteins and the accumulation of recalcitrant compounds such as lipids and lignin. However, these fractions are difficult to measure directly in soils. We examined patterns in the biomolecular composition of SOM and hot-water-extractable organic matter (HWEOM) by using a molecular mixing model (MMM) to estimate the content of carbohydrates, protein, lipids, and lignin. Materials and methods: Organic-horizon soils from Spodosols at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in NH, USA were analyzed for this study. The MMM uses data from elemental analysis (C, H, and N) and 13C nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy with cross-polarization and magic-angle spinning to estimate the percentage of total C in the various classes of biomolecules. Results and discussion: Carbohydrate content decreased from about 50 % of the C in recent litter to approximately 35 % in the bottom of the humus layer. Lipids accounted for about 18 % of C in recent litter and increased to 40 % in the lower humus layers. The HWEOM fraction of SOM was dominated by carbohydrates (40-70 % of C). Carbohydrates and lipids in HWEOM exhibited depth patterns that were the opposite of the SOM. The results from the MMM confirmed the selective decomposition of carbohydrates and the relative accumulation of lipids during humus formation. The depth patterns in HWEOM suggest that the solubility of carbohydrates increases during decomposition, while the solubility of the lipid fraction decreases. The MMM was able to reproduce the spectral properties of SOM and HWEOM very accurately, although there were some discrepancies between the predicted and measured H/C and O/C ratios. Conclusions: The MMM approach is an accurate and cost-effective alternative to wet-chemical methods. Together, carbohydrates and proteins account for up to 85 % of the C in HWEOM, indicating that the HWEOM fraction represents a labile source of C for microbes. Humification resulted in a decrease in carbohydrate content and an increase in lipids in SOM, consistent with investigations carried out in diverse soil environments.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1032-1042
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Soils and Sediments
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2013


  • Carbon
  • Decomposition
  • Forest soil
  • Modeling
  • Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy
  • Soil organic matter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Stratigraphy


Dive into the research topics of 'Compositional characterization of soil organic matter and hot-water-extractable organic matter in organic horizons using a molecular mixing model'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this