Articles | Volume 1, issue 1
SOIL, 1, 235–256, 2015

Special issue: An introduction to SOIL

SOIL, 1, 235–256, 2015

Review article 11 Mar 2015

Review article | 11 Mar 2015

The soil N cycle: new insights and key challenges

J. W. van Groenigen1, D. Huygens2,3,4, P. Boeckx2, Th. W. Kuyper1, I. M. Lubbers1, T. Rütting5, and P. M. Groffman6 J. W. van Groenigen et al.
  • 1Department of Soil Quality, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 47, 6700AA Wageningen, the Netherlands
  • 2Isotope Bioscience Laboratory (ISOFYS), Faculty of Bioscience Engineering, Ghent University, Coupure Links 653, 9000 Ghent, Belgium
  • 3Instituto Multidisciplinario de Biología Vegetal – IMBIV, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas de Argentina, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Casilla de Correo 495, 5000 Córdoba, Argentina
  • 4Institute of Agricultural Engineering and Soil Science, Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Universidad Austral de Chile, Valdivia, Chile
  • 5Department of Earth Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Box 460, 40530 Gothenburg, Sweden
  • 6Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, 2801 Sharon Turnpike, P.O. Box AB, Millbrook, NY 12545-0129, USA

Abstract. The study of soil N cycling processes has been, is, and will be at the centre of attention in soil science research. The importance of N as a nutrient for all biota; the ever-increasing rates of its anthropogenic input in terrestrial (agro)ecosystems; its resultant losses to the environment; and the complexity of the biological, physical, and chemical factors that regulate N cycling processes all contribute to the necessity of further understanding, measuring, and altering the soil N cycle. Here, we review important insights with respect to the soil N cycle that have been made over the last decade, and present a personal view on the key challenges of future research. We identify three key challenges with respect to basic N cycling processes producing gaseous emissions:
1. quantifying the importance of nitrifier denitrification and its main controlling factors;
2. characterizing the greenhouse gas mitigation potential and microbiological basis for N2O consumption;
3. characterizing hotspots and hot moments of denitrification
Furthermore, we identified a key challenge with respect to modelling:
1. disentangling gross N transformation rates using advanced 15N / 18O tracing models
Finally, we propose four key challenges related to how ecological interactions control N cycling processes:
1. linking functional diversity of soil fauna to N cycling processes beyond mineralization;
2. determining the functional relationship between root traits and soil N cycling;
3. characterizing the control that different types of mycorrhizal symbioses exert on N cycling;
4. quantifying the contribution of non-symbiotic pathways to total N fixation fluxes in natural systems
We postulate that addressing these challenges will constitute a comprehensive research agenda with respect to the N cycle for the next decade. Such an agenda would help us to meet future challenges on food and energy security, biodiversity conservation, water and air quality, and climate stability.