Advanced Characterization of Soil Organic Matter Using Ultra High Resolution Mass Spectrometry

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Malak M Tfaily, Rosalie Chu, Nikola Tolic, Kristyn Roscioli, Errol R Robinson, Ljiljana Paša-Tolić and Nancy J Hess, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, Richland, WA, United States
The focus on ecosystem stress and climate change is currently relevant as researchers and policymakers strive to understand the feedbacks between soil C dynamics and climate change. Successful development of molecular profiles that link soil microbiology with soil carbon (C) to ascertain soil vulnerability and resilience to climate change would have great impact on assessments of soil ecosystems in response to climate change. Additionally, better understanding of the dynamics of soil organic matter (SOM) plays a central role to climate modeling, and fate and transport of carbon. The use of ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry (UHR MS) has enabled the examination of molecules, directly from mixtures, with ultrahigh mass resolution and sub-ppm mass accuracy. In this study, EMSL’s extensive expertise and capabilities in UHR MS proteomics were leveraged to develop extraction protocols for the characterization of carbon compounds in SOM, thereby providing the chemical and structural detail needed to develop mechanistic descriptions of soil carbon flow processes. Our experiments have allowed us to identify thousands of individual compounds in complex soil mixtures with a wide range of C content representing diverse ecosystems within the USA. The yield of the chemical extraction was dependent on (1) the type of solvent used and its polarity, (2) sample-to-solvent ratios and (3) the chemical and physical nature of the samples including their origins. Hexane, a non-polar organic solvent, was efficient in extracting lipid-like compounds regardless of soil origin or organic carbon %. For samples with high organic carbon %, acetonitrile extracted a wide range of compounds characterized with high O/C ratios, identified as polyphenolic compounds that were not observed with methanol extraction. Soils extracted with pyridine showed a similar molecular distribution to those extracted by methanol. Solvent extraction followed by UHR MS is a promising tool to understand the dynamics of soil organic matter. The information gained from this study has been used on different user proposals assessing the sensitivity of soil carbon decomposition and feedbacks to climate change. We present examples of several studies and demonstrate its potential in other studies involving the simulated change or ecosystem gradients.