- Author: Ben Faber
Under our feet, in the soil, is a wealth of microbial activity. Just like humans have different metabolisms and food choices, so do those microbes. In fact, microbes play an important role in making nutrients available to plants.
A recent review paper from Xinda Lu and his team looks at different roles that various soil microbes have in soil's nitrogen cycle. Lu is a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
According to Lu, "Soil microbes catalyze most of the transformations of soil nitrogen into plant-usable forms. Diverse microbes use different processes - and sometimes work together. Knowing the various styles of soil microbes, and linking microbes to specific soil processes, can be important knowledge for farmers."
Modern nitrogen fertilizers are applied in the form of ammonium. Through a biological process called nitrification, soil microbes convert ammonium to nitrates that plants can absorb. In order to be efficient at this process, microbes need oxygen. Researchers are studying nitrification because it can be linked to greenhouse gases and loss of fertilizer.
Although microbiologists have been studying the nitrogen cycle for over a century, not all steps were well understood. New microorganisms have recently been identified. A type of prokaryote (single-celled organism) called archaea has also been playing a role in nitrification.
Archaea are not technically soil bacteria, due to their structure. These are newly a newly classified group that really do some amazing things. There are many more archaea that contribute to nitrification in some soils than there are bacteria responsible for the same activity. Including the role of archaea in nitrification has broadened the understanding of scientists and researchers.
Researchers reviewed various studies of soil nitrification. This included the abundance of microbes in soil in relation to various environmental factors. Soil pH, temperature and the ratio of soil carbon to soil nitrogen were all compared to the number of microbes in each soil sample. Soil depth and other factors also influence microbe abundance.
Previous studies have shown, for example, that nitrification archaea are more abundant than bacteria in warmer temperatures. Other microbes thrive in lower temperatures.
Soil pH also influences how active soil microbes are in the nitrification process. Soil bacteria Nitrospira were more dominant in acidic soils, including forests and farm fields.
Researchers have also studied how various microbes "talk" to each other. This keeps the nitrification process running smoothly. Various mechanisms have been proposed, including cell signaling. The presence of nitric oxide in soils may enhance interactions between microbes.
Soil scientists are sure they have not found all the microbes that contribute to the vast array of services soils provide. Just as astronomers discover new stars in the sky as tools advance, so will soil microbiologists find new soil microbes. Some may be involved in nitrification.
Collecting and cataloging the type, abundance and location of soil microbes will continue to advance the knowledge we have about the soil nitrogen cycle.
Crenarchaeota are involved with nitrification in the soil. Here's a cell of this group infected by virus STSV1 observed under microscopy.
- Author: Ben Faber
At a recent meeting the question came up about the fate of nitrogen fertilizer applied through the irrigation system. If it is applied as urea, how long does it take to convert it to nitrate? If applied as ammonium, how long does it take to convert to nitrate? Urea and nitrate pretty much move wherever water moves and is very susceptible to leaching. Because of the positive charge on ammonium, it is not as mobile as nitrate, but once bacteria transform it to nitrate, it moves with water.
This is an important question, since if more water is applied than is needed by the plant, the nitrate is going to move out of the root system and no longer be available to the plant and ends up heading to ground water. Reading the literature, growers get the sense that all this transformation takes time, maybe a long time.
It turns out that soils in coastal California have a pretty rapid conversion of nitrogen. Francis Broadbent at UC Davis did a bunch of studies back in the 1950's and 60's and found enzyme hydrolysis of urea to ammonium occurring within hours. Other researchers have looked at nitrification, the conversion of ammonium to nitrate by soil bacteria, occurring within days and much of the conversion occurring within a week depending on soil temperature (see chart below).
So there is all this nitrate present and the key is what happens to it. It turns out that most plants when actively growing absorb nitrate at about 5 pounds of nitrogen per day. So with a 100% efficiency, applying 20 pounds of nitrogen, all of it would be taken up in four days. Of course, nothing in nature is that efficient. But the point is a big slug of nitrogen applied is not going to be taken up immediately and if more water is applied after that than is needed by the crop, it likely is pushed out of the avocado root zone.
Of course all the nitrogen a plant uses does not come from applied fertilizer. The bulk is coming from soil organic matter that is slowly decomposing. This nitrogen is being released at a rate that is probably in balance with the growth of the tree.
The applied fertilizer, however, is much more unstable and needs to be handled accordingly. The rule of thumb is to break the irrigation application into thirds. In the first third, run the irrigation to fill the lines and wet the soil. In the second third, run the fertilizer. This spreads it through the system and onto the ground. The last third is clear the irrigation system of the material and to move the fertilizer into the root zone. Then given time, the tree will take up the applied nitrogen. At the next irrigation then the bulk of that nitrogen will have been taken up and little will be pushed through the root system.
Low and High Nitrogen Avocado Leaves
Chart showing rapid conversion to nitrate with soil temperature