From humic substances to soil organic matter–microbial contributions. In honour of Konrad Haider and James P. Martin for their outstanding research contribution to soil science

Abstract

Purpose

Many decades of research have shown that humic compounds as part of the soil organic matter (SOM) are essential for the stability and ecosystem services of soils. James P. Martin and Konrad Haider based on several pioneers in humus research improved the basis for the current knowledge of key processes in the soil environment, in particular structure and formation of humus triggered mainly by soil fungi. Other major contributions are briefly described but not in the focus of this article, such as their innovative tracer experiments with isotope-labelled xenobiotic chemicals and natural litter to study their fate. Both scientists inspired generations of younger researchers to advance their approaches and laid the cornerstone of the current understanding of soil organic matter formation.

Results and discussion

This article values the key experiments of Martin and Haider in this field and the related follow-up research finally resulting in the current view on formation mechanisms of SOM and non-extractable residues (NER) of xenobiotics. The improved understanding of these processes considering necromass with tissue residues of plants, microbes and animals challenges the traditional views of humic matter as macromolecular organic matrix, which according to the research of the last years represents only a variable part of the total organic matter besides associates of low molecular weight molecules. We discuss views on soil organic matter and humic substances that are nowadays considered not to differ in molecular diversity. We will start by demonstrating the understanding of humus characteristics and humus formation three decades ago closely related to the findings of Martin and Haider. Methodological approaches to characterize relevant structural and mechanistic pictures of SOM such as the priming effect, clay mineral catalysed reactions and the various mechanisms by which natural and xenobiotic chemicals are protected in soil are briefly illustrated by examples. Fungal activities in producing secondary metabolites like polyketides and their probably minor contributions to SOM formation are presented.

Conclusions and perspectives

Open research questions stimulated by these two soil scientists are sketched which are nowadays possible to address by new sophisticated high-resolution techniques.

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Acknowledgments

We gratefully acknowledge support of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in the frame of the Priority Programme 1315 ‘Biogeochemical Interfaces in Soils’.

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Correspondence to Andreas Schaeffer.

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Schaeffer, A., Nannipieri, P., Kästner, M. et al. From humic substances to soil organic matter–microbial contributions. In honour of Konrad Haider and James P. Martin for their outstanding research contribution to soil science. J Soils Sediments 15, 1865–1881 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11368-015-1177-4

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Keywords

  • Fungal and bacterial necromass
  • Humification processes
  • Humus
  • Microbial humification
  • Microbial secondary metabolites
  • Soil organic matter formation
  • Xenobiotics