The nitrogen gap in soil health concepts and fertility measurements


Soil nitrogen (N) often limits productivity in agroecosystems, prompting fertilizer applications that increase crop yields but can degrade the environment. Nitrogen's dual role in both productivity and environmental quality should center it in soil health frameworks. We use recent evidence to argue that N availability is an emergent property of the integrated soil biogeochemical system and is strongly influenced by plant traits and their interactions with microbes and minerals. Building upon this, we theorize that the sources of plant and microbial N shift across soil health gradients, from inorganic N dependence in ecologically simple systems with poor soil health to a highly networked supply of organic N in healthy soils; ergo, investments in soil health should increase ecological complexity and the pathways by which plants can access N, leading to more resilient nutrient supplies and yields in a variable climate. However, current N assessment methods derive from a historical emphasis on inorganic N pool sizes and are unable to capture the shifting drivers of N availability across soil health gradients. We highlight the need to better understand the plant-microbial-mineral interactions that regulate bioavailable N as a first step to improving our ability to measure it. We conclude it will be necessary to harness agroecosystem complexity, account for plant and microbial drivers, and carefully integrate external N inputs into soils' internal N network to expand the routes by which N from organic pools can be made bioavailable. By emphasizing N in soil health concepts, we argue that researchers can accelerate advances in N use efficiency and resiliency.


Soil Biogeochemistry and Microbial Ecology

Publication Date


Journal Title

Soil Biology and Biochemistry



Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Document Type