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Basis of a Humeomics Science: Chemical Fractionation and Molecular Characterization of Humic Biosuprastructures

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journal contribution
posted on 11.04.2011, 00:00 by Antonio Nebbioso, Alessandro Piccolo
We propose a mild stepwise fractionation of molecular components of a humic acid (HA) suprastructure and their structural identification by advanced analytical methods. This procedure may be the basis of a “Humeomics” approach to characterize natural humic molecules and clarify their relations with ecosystems functions. Sequential fractionation included: (1) organic solvent extraction, (2) transesterification with boron trifluoride in methanol (BF3−CH3OH), (3) methanolic alkaline hydrolysis (KOH−CH3OH), and (4) cleavage of ether and glycosidic bonds with HI. Structural identification of initial and final material, separated organo-soluble and hydrosoluble fractions, and subfractions was conducted by GC-MS, HPSEC−ESI−MS (high-resolution, Orbitrap), and solid- and liquid-state NMR. GC-MS revealed in organosoluble unbound fractions the presence of both saturated and unsaturated, linear and branched, alkanoic, hydroxyalkanoic and alkandioic acids, n-alkanes, and n-alkanols. These components decreased progressively in fractions obtained after weak and strong ester cleavage. Unsubstituted alkanoic acids with variable chain length were ubiquitously detected in all fractions, thereby suggesting their fundamental function in the architecture of humic suprastructures. An important role in differentiating supramolecular associations should also be attributed to substituted alkanoic acids that were detected in variable amounts in different fractions. The content of aromatic acids and steroids was only noticed in the latter fractions. HPSEC−ESI−MS of initial and final solid fractions showed similar compounds, as indicated by GC-MS, whereas the hydrosoluble fraction after transesterification revealed fewer of these compounds but noticeable nitrogen-containing acids. A large amount of “cyclic” acids were identified by MS empirical formula in initial HA, and, to a lesser extent, in the final fractionation residue as well as in the hydrosoluble fraction. The predominant alkyl NMR signals in organosoluble extracts and those of CH−N, CH−O, and O−CH−O groups in hydrosoluble fraction confirmed mass spectrometry results. Homo- and heterocorrelated liquid-state NMR spectra indicated spin systems interactions varying with separated fractions. Solid-state and dipolar-dephasing NMR spectra of final residue showed predominance of sp2 carbons, 66% of which were quaternary carbons, and a significant increase in conformational rigidity with respect to initial HA. Separated fractions accounted for 60% of initial HA weight, and losses were attributed to hydration water, liberated volatile compounds, and decarboxylation. Quantization of analytes showed that the sum of compound classes in separated fractions was greater than that for the initial HA, thereby showing that stepwise fractionation increased significantly the analytical identification of humic molecules. Our results suggest this “Humeomics” approach as a valid path for mapping humic molecular composition and assess humus origin and formation.