Humus has a characteristic black or dark brown color and is organic due to an accumulation of organic carbon. Soil scientists use the capital letters O, A, B, C, and E to identify the master horizons, and lowercase letters for distinctions of these horizons. Most soils have three major horizons—the surface horizon (A), the subsoil (B), and the substratum (C). Some soils have an organic horizon (O) on the surface, but this horizon can also be buried. The master horizon, E, is used for subsurface horizons that have a significant loss of minerals (eluviation). Hard bedrock, which is not soil, uses the letter R.
In soil science, humus (coined 1790–1800; from the Latin humus: earth, ground) refers to the fraction of soil organic matter that is amorphous and without the "cellular structure characteristic of plants, micro-organisms or animals." Humus significantly influences the bulk density of soil and contributes to moisture and nutrient retention.
The process of "humification" can occur naturally in soil, or in the production of compost. The importance of chemically stable humus is thought by some to be the fertility it provides to soils in both a physical and chemical sense, though some agricultural experts put a greater focus on other features of it, such as its ability to suppress disease. It helps the soil retain moisture by increasing microporosity, and encourages the formation of good soil structure. The incorporation of oxygen into large organic molecular assemblages generates many active, negatively charged sites that bind to positively charged ions (cations) of plant nutrients, making them more available to the plant by way of ion exchange. Humus allows soil organisms to feed and reproduce, and is often described as the "life-force" of the soil.
It is difficult to easy humus precisely; it is a highly complex substance, which is still not fully understood. Humus should be differentiated from decomposing organic matter. The latter is rough-looking material and remains of the original plant are still visible. Fully humified organic matter, on the other hand, has a uniform dark, spongy, jelly-like appearance, and is amorphous. It may remain like this for millennia or more. It has no determinate shape, structure or character. However, humified organic matter, when examined under the microscope may reveal tiny plant, animal or microbial remains that have been mechanically, but not chemically, degraded. This suggests a fuzzy boundary between humus and organic matter. In most literature, humus is considered an integral part of soil organic matter.
Plant remains (including those that passed through an animal gut and were excreted as feces) contain organic compounds: sugars, starches, proteins, carbohydrates, lignins, waxes, resins, and organic acids. The process of organic matter decay in the soil begins with the decomposition of sugars and starches from carbohydrates, which break down easily as detritivores initially invade the dead plant organs, while the remaining cellulose and lignin break down more slowly. Simple proteins, organic acids, starches and sugars break down rapidly, while crude proteins, fats, waxes and resins remain relatively unchanged for longer periods of time. Lignin, which is quickly transformed by white-rotfungi, is one of the main precursors of humus, together with by-products of microbial and animal activity. The end-product of this process, the humus, is thus a mixture of compounds and complex life chemicals of plant, animal, or microbial origin that has many functions and benefits in the soil. Earthworm humus (vermicompost) is considered by some to be the best organic manure there is.
Much of the humus in most soils has persisted for more than a hundred years (rather than having been decomposed to CO2), and can be regarded as stable; this is organic matter that has been protected from decomposition by microbial or enzyme action because it is hidden (occluded) inside small aggregates of soil particles or tightly attached (sorbed or complexed) to clays. Most humus that is not protected in this way is decomposed within ten years and can be regarded as less stable or more labile. Thus stable humus contributes little to the pool of plant-available nutrients in the soil, but it does play a part in maintaining its physical structure. A very stable form of humus is that formed from the slow oxidation of black carbon, after the incorporation of finely powdered charcoal into the topsoil. This process is thought to have been important in the formation of the fertile Amazonian dark earths or Terra preta do Indio.
Benefits of soil organic matter and humus
The process that converts raw organic matter into humus feeds the soil population of microorganisms and other creatures, thus maintains high and healthy levels of soil life.
The rate at which raw organic matter is converted into humus promotes (when fast) or limits (when slow) the coexistence of plants, animals, and microbes in soil.
Effective humus and stable humus are further sources of nutrients to microbes, the former provides a readily available supply, and the latter acts as a longer-term storage reservoir.
Decomposition of dead plant material causes complex organic compounds to be slowly oxidized (lignin-like humus) or to break down into simpler forms (sugars and amino sugars, aliphatic, and phenolicorganic acids), which are further transformed into microbial biomass (microbial humus) or are reorganized, and further oxidized, into humic assemblages (fulvic and humic acids), which bind to clay minerals and metal hydroxides. There has been a long debate about the ability of plants to uptake humic substances from their root systems and to metabolize them. There is now a consensus about how humus plays a hormonal role rather than simply a nutritional role in plant physiology.
Humus can hold the equivalent of 80–90% of its weight in moisture, and therefore increases the soil's capacity to withstand drought conditions.
The biochemical structure of humus enables it to moderate – or buffer – excessive acid or alkaline soil conditions.
During the humification process, microbes secrete sticky gum-like mucilages; these contribute to the crumb structure (tilth) of the soil by holding particles together, and allowing greater aeration of the soil. Toxic substances such as heavy metals, as well as excess nutrients, can be chelated (that is, bound to the complex organic molecules of humus) and so prevented from entering the wider ecosystem.
The dark color of humus (usually black or dark brown) helps to warm up cold soils in the spring.
^Chertov, O.G., Kornarov, A.S., Crocker, G., Grace, P., Klir, J., Körschens, M., Poulton, P.R., Richter, D., 1997. Simulating trends of soil organic carbon in seven long-term experiments using the SOMM model of the humus types. Geoderma 81:121–135.doi:10.1016/S0016-7061(97)00085-2
^Baritz, R., 2003. Humus forms in forests of the northern German lowlands. Schweizerbart, Stuttgart, Germany, 145 pp.
^Hargitai, L., 1993. The soil of organic matter content and humus quality in the maintenance of soil fertility and in environmental protection. Landscape and Urban Planning 27:161–167.doi:10.1016/0169-2046(93)90044-E
^De Macedo, J.R., Do Amaral Meneguelli, N., Ottoni, T.B., Araujo de Sousa Lima, J., 2002. Estimation of field capacity and moisture retention based on regression analysis involving chemical and physical properties in Alfisols and Ultisols of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis, 33: 2037–2055.doi:10.1081/CSS-120005747
^Hempfling, R., Schulten, H.R., Horn, R., 1990. Relevance of humus composition to the physical/mechanical stability of agricultural soils: a study by direct pyrolysis-mass spectrometry. Journal of Analytical and Applied Pyrolysis 17:275–281.doi:10.1016/0165-2370(90)85016-G
^ abSzalay, A., 1964. Cation exchange properties of humic acids and their importance in the geochemical enrichment of UO2++ and other cations. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 28:1605–1614.doi:10.1016/0016-7037(64)90009-2
^Elo, S., Maunuksela, L., Salkinoja-Salonen, M., Smolander,A., Haahtela, K., 2006. Humus bacteria of Norway spruce stands: plant growth promoting properties and birch, red fescue and alder colonizing capacity. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 31:143–152doi:10.1111/j.1574-6941.2000.tb00679.x
^ abVreeken-Buijs, M.J., Hassink, J., Brussaard, L., 1998. Relationships of soil microarthropod biomass with organic matter and pore size distribution in soils under different land use. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 30:97–106doi:10.1016/S0038-0717(97)00064-3
^di Giovanni1, C., Disnar, J.R., Bichet, V., Campy, M., 1998. Sur la présence de matières organiques mésocénozoïques dans des humus actuels (bassin de Chaillexon, Doubs, France). Comptes Rendus de l'Académie des Sciences de Paris, Series IIA, Earth and Planetary Science 326:553–559doi:10.1016/S1251-8050(98)80206-1
^Lehmann, J., Kern, D.C., Glaser, B., Woods, W.I., 2004. Amazonian Dark Earths: origin, properties, management. Springer, 523 pp. ISBN 978-1-4020-1839-8
^Elo, S., Maunuksela, L., Salkinoja-Salonen, M., Smolander, A., Haahtela, K., 2006. Humus bacteria of Norway spruce stands: plant growth promoting properties and birch, red fescue and alder colonizing capacity. FEMS Microbiology Ecology 31:143–152doi:10.1111/j.1574-6941.2000.tb00679.x
^Eyheraguibel, B., Silvestrea, J. Morard, P., 2008. Effects of humic substances derived from organic waste enhancement on the growth and mineral nutrition of maize. Bioresource Technology 99:4206–4212doi:10.1016/j.biortech.2007.08.082
^Kikuchi, R., 2004. Deacidification effect of the litter layer on forest soil during snowmelt runoff: laboratory experiment and its basic formularization for simulation modeling. Chemosphere 54:1163–1169doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2003.10.025
^Caesar-Tonthat, T.C., 2002. Soil binding properties of mucilage produced by a basidiomycete fungus in a model system. Mycological Research 106:930–937doi:10.1017/S0953756202006330
^Huang, D.L., Zeng, G.M., Feng, C.L., Hu, S., Jiang, X.Y., Tang, L., Su, F.F., Zhang, Y., Zeng, W., Liu, H.L., 2008. Degradation of lead-contaminated lignocellulosic waste by Phanerochaete chrysosporium and the reduction of lead toxicity. Environmental Science and Technology 42:4946–4951doi:10.1021/es800072c