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Nitrogen mineralization: Challenges of a changing paradigm

by Joshua P. Schimel, Jennifer Bennett
Ecology ()
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Abstract

Until recently, the common view of the terrestrial nitrogen cycle had been driven by two core assumptions—plants use only inorganic N and they compete poorly against soil microbes for N. Thus, plants were thought to use N that microbes ‘‘left over,’’ allowing the N cycle to be divided cleanly into two pieces—the microbial decomposition side and the plant uptake and use side. These were linked by the process of net mineral- ization. Over the last decade, research has changed these views. N cycling is now seen as being driven by the depolymerization of N-containing polymers by microbial (including mycorrhizal) extracellular enzymes. This releases organic N-containing monomers that may be used by either plants or microbes. However, a complete new conceptual model of the soil N cycle needs to incorporate recent research on plant–microbe competition and mi- crosite processes to explain the dynamics of N across the wide range of N availability found in terrestrial ecosystems.We discuss the evolution of thinking about the soil N cycle, propose a new integrated conceptual model that explains how N cycling changes as eco- system N availability changes, and discuss methodological issues raised by the changing paradigm of terrestrial N cycling.

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