Nitrogen mineralization: Challenges of a changing paradigm
Until recently, the common view of the terrestrial nitrogen cycle had been driven by two core assumptions—plants use only inorganic N and they compete poorly against soil microbes for N. Thus, plants were thought to use N that microbes “left over,” allowing the N cycle to be divided cleanly into two pieces—the microbial decomposition side and the plant uptake and use side. These were linked by the process of net mineralization. Over the last decade, research has changed these views. N cycling is now seen as being driven by the depolymerization of N-containing polymers by microbial (including mycorrhizal) extracellular enzymes. This releases organic N-containing monomers that may be used by either plants or microbes. However, a complete new conceptual model of the soil N cycle needs to incorporate recent research on plant–microbe competition and microsite processes to explain the dynamics of N across the wide range of N availability found in terrestrial ecosystems. We discuss the evolution of thinking about the soil N cycle, propose a new integrated conceptual model that explains how N cycling changes as ecosystem N availability changes, and discuss methodological issues raised by the changing paradigm of terrestrial N cycling.