Nitrogen fixation and the mass balances of carbon and nitrogen in ecosystems

John Pastor, Dan Binkley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Ecosystems with high rates of nitrogen fixation often have high loss rates through leaching or possibly denitrification. However, there is no formal theoretical context to examine why this should be the case nor of how nitrogen accumulates in such open systems. Here, we propose a simple model coupling nitrogen inputs and losses to carbon inputs and losses. The nitrogen balance of this model system depends on plant (nitrogen fixer) growth rate, its carrying capacity, N fixed/C fixed, residence time of nitrogen and carbon in biomass, litter decay rate, litter N/C, and fractional loss rate of mineralized nitrogen. The model predicts the requirements for equilibrium in a nitrogen-fixing system, and the conditions on nitrogen fixation and losses in order for the system to accumulate nitrogen and carbon. In particular, the accumulation of nitrogen and carbon in a nitrogen-fixing system depend on an interaction between residence time in vegetation and litter decay rate in soil. To reflect a possible increased uptake of soil nitrogen and decreased respiratory cost of symbiotic nitrogen fixers, the model was then modified so that fixation rate decreased and growth rate increased as nitrogen capital accumulated. These modifications had only small effects on carbon and nitrogen accumulation. This suggests that switching from uptake of atmospheric nitrogen to mineral soil nitrogen as nitrogen capital accumulates simply results in a trade-off between energetic limitations and soil nitrogen limitations to carbon and nitrogen accumulation. Experimental tests of the model are suggested.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)63-78
Number of pages16
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1998


  • Carbon
  • Mass balance
  • Nitrogen
  • Nitrogen fixation


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