A unifying framework for dinitrogen fixation in the terrestrial biosphere


Dinitrogen (N2) fixation is widely recognized as an important process in controlling ecosystem responses to global environmental change, both today1 and in the past2; however, significant discrepancies exist between theory and observations of patterns of N2 fixation across major sectors of the land biosphere. A question remains as to why symbiotic N2-fixing plants are more abundant in vast areas of the tropics than in many of the mature forests that seem to be nitrogen-limited in the temperate and boreal zones3. Here we present a unifying framework for terrestrial N2 fixation that can explain the geographic occurrence of N2 fixers across diverse biomes and at the global scale. By examining trade-offs inherent in plant carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus capture, we find a clear advantage to symbiotic N2 fixers in phosphorus-limited tropical savannas and lowland tropical forests. The ability of N2 fixers to invest nitrogen into phosphorus acquisition seems vital to sustained N2 fixation in phosphorus-limited tropical ecosystems. In contrast, modern-day temperatures seem to constrain N2 fixation rates and N2-fixing species from mature forests in the high latitudes. We propose that an analysis that couples biogeochemical cycling and biophysical mechanisms is sufficient to explain the principal geographical patterns of symbiotic N2 fixation on land, thus providing a basis for predicting the response of nutrient-limited ecosystems to climate change and increasing atmospheric CO2.

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Figure 1: Temperature dependence of terrestrial nitrogenase activity.
Figure 2: Phosphatase enzyme rates in soils with and without N 2-fixing plants.
Figure 3: Model results for different hypotheses across terrestrial biomes at steady state.


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This work was funded by the National Science Foundation, CSIRO, the Australian Greenhouse Office, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the US Department of Energy.

Author Contributions B.Z.H. wrote the initial manuscript. Y.P.W. and B.Z.H. performed the model simulations. All authors discussed the approach, organization and results, and developed and improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Benjamin Z. Houlton.

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The file contains Supplementary Notes and Supplementary Figures 1-2 with Legends, Supplementary Table 1 and additional references. (PDF 117 kb)

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Houlton, B., Wang, Y., Vitousek, P. et al. A unifying framework for dinitrogen fixation in the terrestrial biosphere. Nature 454, 327–330 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07028

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