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Free radicals, antioxidants, and soil organic matter recalcitrance
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Dr David Rimmer
European Journal of Soil Science
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Highly reactive, and potentially damaging, free radicals are readily generated in our oxygen-rich environment, and are ubiquitous in biological systems. However, plants and animals have evolved protection against them with a range of antioxidant molecules, such as vitamins C and E, many of which are phenolic compounds. These stop the destructive chain reaction of free radical formation by being transformed into unreactive, stable free radicals. The biodegradation of food involves oxidation by free radicals, and is retarded by antioxidants. Similarly, the biodegradation of plant residues in soils involves free radicals; so the questions arise: 1) do soils have antioxidants, and 2) what function might they have? The evidence suggests that they probably do antioxidants. First, plant and animal remains added to soils will contain antioxidants. These are likely to persist for a time, particularly tannins, which are polyphenolic compounds with known antioxidant properties and which are relatively resistant to degradation. Second, studies using electron spin resonance spectroscopy have shown that humic materials contain stable semiquinone free radicals, and that their concentration increases as humification progresses. These semiquinone species are most likely to be derived from the reaction of phenolic compounds with reactive radicals. If this is the case, the phenolics are acting as antioxidants, because they are scavenging the reactive free radicals and terminating the oxidative chain reaction responsible for soil organic matter (SOM) degradation. Thus the soil’s antioxidant capacity could control the rate of breakdown of organic matter in the more labile pools and could provide a chemical mechanism for the recalcitrance of SOM. Current available evidence for the nature of the recalcitrant pool in SOM is discussed in the light of this hypothesis, and the experimental approaches necessary for testing it are outlined.
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