Journal of Soils and Sediments

, Volume 13, Issue 6, pp 1032–1042 | Cite as

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



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.


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.


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



This work was funded by the US Department of Agriculture National Research Initiative Competitive Grants program (award no. 2005-35107-16200). Support was also provided by the National Science Foundation, through the Long-Term Ecological Research program (grant no. 1114804). Jeff Baldock and Ron Smernik provided valuable advice on the application of the molecular mixing model and interpretation of the results. Ankit Balaria was supported by a W.L. Li Fellowship while preparing this manuscript. The comments of two anonymous reviewers greatly improved the paper. This is a contribution of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study. The Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest is operated by the Northern Research Station of the USDA Forest Service, Newtown Square, PA.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringSyracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA

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