Soil Organic Matter Characterization by Fourier Transform Ion Cyclotron Resonance Mass Spectrometry (FTICR MS): A Critical Review of Sample Preparation, Analysis, and Data Interpretation

William Bahureksa, Malak M. Tfaily, Rene M. Boiteau, Robert B. Young, Merritt N. Logan, Amy M. McKenna, Thomas Borch

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

88 Scopus citations


The biogeochemical cycling of soil organic matter (SOM) plays a central role in regulating soil health, water quality, carbon storage, and greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, many studies have been conducted to reveal how anthropogenic and climate variables affect carbon sequestration and nutrient cycling. Among the analytical techniques used to better understand the speciation and transformation of SOM, Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FTICR MS) is the only technique that has sufficient mass resolving power to separate and accurately assign elemental compositions to individual SOM molecules. The global increase in the application of FTICR MS to address SOM complexity has highlighted the many challenges and opportunities associated with SOM sample preparation, FTICR MS analysis, and mass spectral interpretation. Here, we provide a critical review of recent strategies for SOM characterization by FTICR MS with emphasis on SOM sample collection, preparation, analysis, and data interpretation. Data processing and visualization methods are presented with suggested workflows that detail the considerations needed for the application of molecular information derived from FTICR MS. Finally, we highlight current research gaps, biases, and future directions needed to improve our understanding of organic matter chemistry and cycling within terrestrial ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9637-9656
Number of pages20
JournalEnvironmental Science and Technology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 20 2021
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
A portion of this work was performed at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, which is supported by the National Science Foundation Divisions of Chemistry and Materials Research through Cooperative Agreement No. DMR-1644779 and the state of Florida. A portion of the research was also performed using EMSL, a DOE Office of Science User Facility sponsored by the Biological and Environmental Research program. This research was supported, in part, by Grant No. 2018130 from the United States–Israel Binational Science Foundation (BSF), the National Science Foundation under Grant No. (1512670), Department of Energy, Office of Science Biological and Environmental Research Grant, DE-SC0021349, and by SBR Project DE-SC0020205. We would like to acknowledge Dr. William Hockaday for their correspondence and usage of data for Figure 4. Any use of trade, product, or firm names in the publications is for descriptive purposes only and does not imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 American Chemical Society.


  • carbon sequestration
  • Dissolved organic carbon (DOC)
  • metabolomics
  • microbial carbon metabolism
  • mineral-associated organic matter
  • organic nitrogen
  • organo-metal complexation
  • sorptive fractionation


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