Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. Cleveland, C. C. et al. Global patterns of terrestrial biological nitrogen (N2) fixation. Glob. Biogeochem. Cycles 13, 623–645 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Rosen, K. & Lindberg, T. Biological nitrogen-fixation in coniferous forest watershed areas in central Sweden. Holarct. Ecol. 3, 137–140 (1980)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  3. Walter, H. & Breckle, S.-W. Ecological Systems of the Geobiosphere. Temperate and Polar Zonobiomes of Northern Eurasia (Springer, Berlin, 1989)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  4. Tamm, C. O. Nitrogen in Terrestrial Ecosystems 34–49 (Springer, Berlin, 1991)

    Google Scholar 

  5. Longton, R. E. Bryophytes and Lichens in an Changing Environment (eds Bates, J. W. & Farmer, A. M.) 32–76 (Clarendon, Oxford, UK, 1992)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Shugart, R., Leemans, R. & Bonan, G. B. A System Analysis of Global Boreal Forest 565 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 1992)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  7. Vogel, J. G. & Gower, S. T. Carbon and nitrogen dynamics of boreal jack pine stands with and without a green alder understory. Ecosystems 1, 386–400 (1998)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Wardle, D. A., Zackrisson, O., Hörnberg, G. & Gallet, C. The influence on island area on ecosystem properties. Science 277, 1296–1299 (1997)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Binkley, D., Son, Y. & Valentine, D. W. Do forests receive occult inputs of nitrogen? Ecosystems 3, 321–331 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. DeLuca, T. H., Nilsson, M.-C. & Zackrisson, O. Nitrogen mineralization and phenol accumulation along a fire chronosequence in northern Sweden. Oecologia advance online publication, 28 August 2002 (DOI 10.1007/S00442-002-1025-2)

  11. Rai, A. N., Soderback, E. & Bergman, B. Cyanobacteria-plant symbioses. New Phytol. 147, 449–481 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Alexander, V. & Billington, M. M. Forest Ecosystems in the Alaskan Taiga: a Synthesis of Structure and Function (eds Van Cleve, K., Chapin, F. S., Flanagan, P. W., Viereck, L. A. & Dyrness, C. T.) 112–120 (Springer, New York, 1986)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  13. Christie, P. Nitrogen fixation in two contrasting Antarctic bryophyte communities. J. Ecol. 75, 73–93 (1987)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Reddy, G. B. & Giddens, J. Nitrogen fixation by moss-algal association in grasslands. Soil Biol. Biochem. 13, 537–538 (1981)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Chapin, D. M., Bliss, L. C. & Bledsoe, L. J. Environmental regulation of nitrogen fixation in a high arctic lowland ecosystem. Can. J. Bot. 69, 2744–2755 (1991)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Pandey, K. D., Kashy, A. K. & Gupta, R. K. Nitrogen fixation by cyanobacteria associated with moss communities in Schirmacher Oasis, Antarctica. Israel J. Bot. 41, 187–198 (1992)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Granhall, U. & Selander, H. Nitrogen fixation in a subartic mire. Oikos 24, 8–15 (1973)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Whitehead, D. & Gower, S. T. Photosynthesis and light-use efficiency by plants in a Canadian boreal forest ecosystem. Tree Physiol. 21, 925–929 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Kuc, M. The northernmost extension of the moss Pleurozium schreberi (Brid.) Mitt. in the Canadian High Arctic. Can. Field Nat. 111, 630–633 (1997)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Foster, D. R. Vegetation development following fire in Picea mariana (black spruce)–Pleurozium forests of south-eastern Labrador, Canada. J. Ecol. 73, 517–534 (1985)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Melkönen, E. Annual primary production and nutrient cycle in some Scots pine stands. Commun. Inst. Forest. Fenn. 84, 1–76 (1974)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Oechel, W. C. & Van Cleve, K. Forest Ecosystems in the Alaskan Taiga: A Synthesis of Structure and Function (eds Van Cleve, K., Chapin, F. S., Flanagan, P. W., Viereck, L. A. & Dyrness, C. T.) 121–137 (Springer, New York, 1986)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Vitousek, P. M. & Hobbie, S. Heterotrophic nitrogen fixation in decomposing litter: Patterns and regulation. Ecology 81, 2366–2376 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Chapin, F. S. III, Vitousek, P. M. & Van Cleve, K. The nature of nutrient limitation in plant communities. Am. Nat. 127, 48–58 (1986)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Rastetter, E. B. et al. Resource optimization and symbiotic nitrogen fixation. Ecosystems 4, 369–388 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Van Cleve, K. & Alexander, V. in Terrestrial Nitrogen Cycles Ecol. Bull. 33 (eds Clark, F. E. & Rosswell, T.) 375–404, (Swedish Natural Science Research Council, Stockholm, 1981)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Mattsson, U. & Sellstedt, A. Hydrogenase in Frankia KB5: Expression of and relation to nitrogenase. Can. J. Microbiol. 46, 1091–1095 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Hägglund, B. & Lundmark, J. E. Site index estimation by means of site properties. Studia Forestalica Svecica 138, 1–34 (1977)

    Google Scholar 

  29. Weaver, R. W. & Danso, S. K. A. Methods of Soil Analysis Part 2 Biochemical and Microbiological Properties (eds Weaver, R., Angle, J. S. & Bottomley, P. S.) 985–1018 (Soil Science Society of America, Madison, WI, 1994)

    Google Scholar 

Download references


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

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Thomas H. DeLuca.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing