The supramolecular structure of humic substances

by Alessandro Piccolo


The scientific understanding of the molecular size and shape of humic substances (HS) is critically reviewed. The traditional view that HS are polymers in soil is not substantiated by any direct evidence but is as- sumed only on the basis of laboratory experiments with model molecules and unwarranted results produced by incorrectly applying either analyt- ical procedures or mathemiatical treatments developed for purified and undisputed biopolymers. A large body of evidence shows an alternative understanding of the conformational nature of H15, wbich should be re- garded as supramnolecular associations of self-assem-bling heterogeneous and relatively small molecules deriving fronm the degradation and de- composition of dead biological material. A major aspect of the hunice supramolecular conformation is that it is stabilized predominantly by weak dispersive forces instead of covalent linkages. Hydrophobic (van der Waals, a-n, CH-n) and hydrogen bonds are responsible for the ap- parent large molecular size of HS, the former becomsing more important with the increase of pH. This innovative understanding of the nature of HS implies a further development of the science and technology for the control of the chemistry and reactivity of natural organic matter in the soil and the enironment.

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