Soil Organic Matter in Its Native State: Unravelling the Most Complex Biomaterial on Earth

Since the isolation of soil organic matter in 1786, tens of thousands of publications have searched for its structure. Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has played a critical role in defining soil organic matter but traditional approaches remove key information such as the distribution of components at the soil–water interface and conformational information. Here a novel form of NMR with capabilities to study all physical phases termed Comprehensive Multiphase NMR, is applied to analyze soil in its natural swollen-state. The key structural components in soil organic matter are identified to be largely composed of macromolecular inputs from degrading biomass. Polar lipid heads and carbohydrates dominate the soil–water interface while lignin and microbes are arranged in a more hydrophobic interior. Lignin domains cannot be penetrated by aqueous solvents even at extreme pH indicating they are the most hydrophobic environment in soil and are ideal for sequestering hydrophobic contaminants. Here, for the first time, a complete range of physical states of a whole soil can be studied. This provides a more detailed understanding of soil organic matter at the molecular level itself key to develop the most efficient soil remediation and agricultural techniques, and better predict carbon sequestration and climate change.