Nitrogen continues to confound convention

Ah nitrogen…  It is the most abundant molecule in the air that we breathe (close to 80%), yet plants always seem to be starving for it.  Annually, nitrogen fertilizers are a $75 billion dollar industry. The problem is that the nitrogen gas that we breathe (N2) is very nonreactive, because the two nitrogen atoms are held together by a massively powerful triple bond.  So N2 must be broken down to some other more usable form (such as ammonia) – a process we call nitrogen fixation.  Most nitrogen fixers are microorganisms that live in soils or symbiotically within plants.  Unfortunately, N-fixation is energetically very costly, so even organisms that can fix nitrogen will generally happily use nitrogen compounds from the soil or leaf litter (the layer of fallen leaves above the soil) if they are available, rather than expending enormous energy to fix it for themselves. The general formula for nitrogen fixation (ignoring protons, electrons and energy transfers) is…


A few years ago Scott Morford, Benjamin Houlton and Randy Dahlgren (the first two are co-authors of the present study) stunned the ecological world by identifying a previously unsuspected source of nitrogen – weathering of bedrock such as the mica schist pictured below. This bedrock was formed from seabeds which were rich in organic matter and had a high concentration of nitrogen compounds When the rock breaks down, both carbon and nitrogen compounds leach into the soil. Katherine Dynarski became interested in nitrogen fixation as an undergrad at Villanova University, so it was natural for her to move to the University of California at Davis to begin her graduate work with Morford and Houlton on how nitrogen cycles through ecosystems.


Nitrogen-rich mica schist bedrock. Credit: Katherine Dynarski.

Dynarski got involved in this specific project essentially by accident. She was helping a fellow graduate student collect rocks at adjacent forests on contrasting bedrock (one high-N mica schist, and one low-N basalt), and figured that while she was out there, she might as well measure some N-fixation rates. In leaf litter and the soil below, most N-fixation is done by free-living soil bacteria. Dynarski expected higher N-fixation rates in the litter collected above the N-poor bedrock, reasoning that the microorganisms would need to fix nitrogen from the air, because there was little present in the litter.  In contrast, she expected to find lower N-fixation rates in litter collected above the N-rich bedrock, reasoning that the micro-organisms could save considerable energy by using existing nitrogen that had leached into the soil and leaf litter layer. She was shocked when she ran the samples and found exactly the opposite of her expectation, which led her to develop a more substantial project looking at the relationship between bedrock and N fixing microbes.


Katherine Dynarski conducting gas incubations to measure N-fixation rates in the field. Credit: Scott Mitchell.

Working in northern California and Western Oregon, Dynarski and her colleagues identified sites whose bedrock was low in nitrogen (below 500 parts per million N) or high in nitrogen (above 500 ppm N). The researchers used soil and leaf litter samples from 14 paired sites – high N bedrock with nearby low N bedrock. They analyzed soil and leaf litter samples from each plot for concentration of nitrogen, carbon (C), phosphorus (P) and molybdenum (Mo) – the latter two elements have been shown in other systems to limit the rate of N-fixation.  The researchers also collected samples of underlying bedrock and analyzed N and Mo content of these rocks.

Recall that the conventional paradigm is that microorganisms should have lower N-fixation rates in N-rich environments.  There was negligible N-fixation occurring in the soil, but considerable N-fixation in the leaf litter above.  Thus the conventional prediction was that N-fixation rates would be higher in leaf litter above low-N bedrock. As I mentioned previously, Dynarski found the exact opposite to be true in one site; would this unconventional finding be confirmed by the 14 sites explored in this study?

The answer is yes!  Considerably more N-fixation was detected in leaf litter above high N bedrock than in leaf litter above low N bedrock.


Mean leaf litter N-fixation rates and low-N and High_N bedrock sites.  Error bars are one standard deviation. P = 0.014.

You will notice the large error bars above the graph.  As it turns out, N-fixation rates vary dramatically – even on a very small spatial scale, which is why the researchers took multiple samples from each site. Some sample sites (hotspots) have unusually high rates of N-fixation.  These hotspots are also strongly correlated with high carbon concentration, with greater C in the leaf litter associated with much higher rates of N-fixation.


Litter N-fixation rates in relation to % soil carbon at N-fixation hotspots. Hotspots are defined as having fixation rates greater than 1 kg N per hectare per year.

Dynarski and her colleagues also discovered that, in general, leaf litter above high-N bedrock tended to have more C and P than did leaf litter above low-N bedrock.  Given this finding (along with the hotspot finding) we are now ready to explore the question of why microbes are expending more energy to fix nitrogen in regions where more nitrogen is naturally available.

The researchers considered two hypotheses.  First, it takes N to make N.  N-fixation is catalyzed by N-rich enzymes. It may be that leaf litter above low-N bedrock is too N-poor to provide microbes with enough nitrogen make these enzymes. So the additional nitrogen from high-N bedrock is just enough to allow microbes to produce the N-fixation enzymes.

The second hypothesis is that the litter above low-N bedrock is also low in C, P and Mo, all of which are required for N-fixation. Thus the positive effect of these nutrients overwhelms the negative effect of additional nitrogen on the rate of nitrogen fixation.  According to this hypothesis, the conventional paradigm of high nitrogen availability reducing the rate of N-fixation is correct, but other factors may be equally or more important in natural ecosystems.

Fortunately, this conundrum is easily resolved.  Dynarski and her colleagues took some leaf litter samples and added a small amount of nitrogen to them.  These N-additions significantly reduced N-fixation rates at both low and high bedrock N sites.  Thus environmental N does reduce biological N-fixation, but other factors, such as the availability of other essential nutrients, can overwhelm the inhibitory effect of environmental nitrogen in natural ecosystems


A Douglas fir forest in the Oregon Coast Range, where some of this research was conducted.  Credit: Katherine Dynarski.

The researchers conclude that nitrogen input from bedrock weathering leads to increased C storage and P retention, ultimately enhancing rates of N-fixation. About 75% of Earth’s surface is underlain by rocks with substantial N reservoirs, so we need to continue exploring the effects of weathering bedrock on ecosystem processes and functioning.

note: the paper that describes this research is from the journal Ecology. The reference is Dynarski, K. A., S. L. Morford, S. A. Mitchell, and B. Z. Houlton. 2019. Bedrock nitrogen weathering stimulates biological nitrogen fixation. Ecology 100(8):e02741. 10.1002/ ecy.2741. Thanks to the Ecological Society of America for allowing me to use figures from the paper. Copyright © 2019 by the Ecological Society of America. All rights reserved.

One thought on “Nitrogen continues to confound convention

  1. Pingback: Forest canopy fixes nitrogen shortage | Fred's Ecology and Environmental Tales (AKA: The FEET)

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