The aim of this research was to extract, with a sequential method, HS free from water-soluble phenols (HS-WP) and water-soluble phenols free from humic substances (WP-HS), and to evaluate and to compare the biological effects of these two extracts to humic substances (HS) and water-soluble phenols (WP) traditionally extracted. In each extract we determined the concentration of low molecular weight organic acids, soluble carbohydrates, fatty acids, phenolic acids and total proteins. We tested the biological activity of each soil extract and of the single identified compounds on different plant organs (Pinus laricio callus, Daucus carota cells, and Pinus laricio, Pinus halepensis, Lens culinaris and Cichorium intybus seeds). The results showed that eliminating from HS the WP fraction, and from WP the HS fraction we obtained extracts chemically different from HS as such, and WP as such. HS and HS-WP increased callus and cell growth and also root elongation of the different species used; in contrast, WP and WP-HS had negative effects inhibiting callus and cell growth and seed germination percentage of coniferous, herbaceous and leguminous species. The negative effects can be ascribed to the presence of phenolic acids in the extracts while the positive biological activity can be attributed to the presence of tartaric acid, and fatty acids. In conclusion, this study helps to discriminate the effects of humic substances against phenolic compounds extracted from soils explaining the different and in some way contradictory biological behaviour of these two main fractions of SOM.
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