Ultrafast Energy Transfer Determines the Formation of Fluorescence in DOM and Humic Substances

Yakimov Boris P., Rubekina Anna A., Budylin Gleb S., Zherebker Alexander Y., Kompanets Victor O., Chekalin Sergey V., Vainer Yuri G., Fadeev Victor V., Gorbunov Maxim Y., Perminova Irina V., Shirshin Evgeny A.

Environmental Science and Technology, 2021, , doi: 10.1021/acs.est.1c00998


Humification is a ubiquitous natural process of biomass degradation that creates multicomponent systems of nonliving organic matter, including dissolved organic matter (DOM) and humic substances (HS) in water environments, soils, and organic rocks. Despite significant differences in molecular composition, the optical properties of DOM and HS are remarkably similar, and the reason for this remains largely unknown. Here, we employed fluorescence spectroscopy with (sub)picosecond resolution to elucidate the role of electronic interactions within DOM and HS. We revealed an ultrafast decay component with a characteristic decay lifetime of 0.5–1.5 ps and spectral diffusion originating from excitation energy transfer (EET) in the system. The rate of EET was positively correlated to the fraction of aromatic species and tightness of aromatic species packing. Diminishing the number of EET donor–acceptor pairs by reduction with NaBH4 (decrease of the acceptor number), decrease of pH (decrease of the electron-donating ability), or decrease of the average particle size by filtration (less donor–acceptor pairs within a particle) resulted in a lower impact of the ultrafast component on fluorescence decay. Our results uncover the role of electronic coupling among fluorophores in the formation of DOM and HS optical properties and provide a framework for studying photophysical processes in heterogeneous systems of natural fluorophores.