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Quantifying nitrogen-fixation in feather moss carpets of boreal forests


Biological nitrogen (N) fixation is the primary source of N within natural ecosystems1, yet the origin of boreal forest N has remained elusive. The boreal forests of Eurasia and North America lack any significant, widespread symbiotic N-fixing plants1,2,3,4,5,6. With the exception of scattered stands of alder in early primary successional forests7, N-fixation in boreal forests is considered to be extremely limited. Nitrogen-fixation in northern European boreal forests has been estimated2 at only 0.5 kg N ha-1 yr-1; however, organic N is accumulated in these ecosystems at a rate of 3 kg N ha-1 yr-1 (ref. 8). Our limited understanding of the origin of boreal N is unacceptable given the extent of the boreal forest region, but predictable given our imperfect knowledge of N-fixation1,9. Herein we report on a N-fixing symbiosis between a cyanobacterium (Nostoc sp.) and the ubiquitous feather moss, Pleurozium schreberi (Bird) Mitt. that alone fixes between 1.5 and 2.0 kg N ha-1 yr-1 in mid- to late-successional forests of northern Scandinavia and Finland. Previous efforts have probably underestimated N-fixation potential in boreal forests.

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Figure 1: Average acetylene reduction rates (µmol m-2 d-1) for P. schreberi at 27 different boreal sites in northern Europe between latitudes of 62–70° N and longitudes of 13–20° E.
Figure 2: Average acetylene reduction rates (µmol m-2 d-1) for P. schreberi from May to early December 2001 at the Reivo forest reserve in northern Sweden.
Figure 3: A micrograph of a section of moss leaf present at ×200 magnification.


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We thank R. Sheridan, B. Bergman, U. Rasmussen, and J. Johansen for their advice and assistance.

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Correspondence to Thomas H. DeLuca.

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DeLuca, T., Zackrisson, O., Nilsson, MC. et al. Quantifying nitrogen-fixation in feather moss carpets of boreal forests. Nature 419, 917–920 (2002).

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