Humic acids: Structural properties and multiple functionalities for novel technological developments

Mater Sci Eng C Mater Biol Appl. 2016 May:62:967-74. doi: 10.1016/j.msec.2015.12.001. Epub 2015 Dec 3.


Humic acids (HAs) are macromolecules that comprise humic substances (HS), which are organic matter distributed in terrestrial soil, natural water, and sediment. HAs differ from the other HS fractions (fulvic acid and humins) in that they are soluble in alkaline media, partially soluble in water, and insoluble in acidic media. Due to their amphiphilic character, HAs form micelle-like structures in neutral to acidic conditions, which are useful in agriculture, pollution remediation, medicine and pharmaceuticals. HAs have undefined compositions that vary according to the origin, process of obtainment, and functional groups present in their structures, such as quinones, phenols, and carboxylic acids. Quinones are responsible for the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) in HAs, which are useful for wound healing and have fungicidal/bactericidal properties. Phenols and carboxylic acids deprotonate in neutral and alkaline media and are responsible for various other functions, such as the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of HAs. In particular, the presence of phenolic groups in HAs provides antioxidant properties due to their free radical scavenging capacity. This paper describes the main multifunctionalities of HAs associated with their structures and properties, focusing on human health applications, and we note perspectives that may lead to novel technological developments. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first review to address this topic from this approach.

Keywords: Antioxidant; Humic acids; Humic substances; Reactive oxygen species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants / chemistry*
  • Antioxidants / metabolism
  • Antiviral Agents / chemistry
  • Antiviral Agents / pharmacology
  • Cytokines / antagonists & inhibitors
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Humic Substances / analysis*
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Virus Replication / drug effects


  • Antioxidants
  • Antiviral Agents
  • Cytokines
  • Humic Substances
  • Reactive Oxygen Species