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Scope and Strategies for Regulation of Nitrification in Agricultural Systems—Challenges and Opportunities

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Nitrification, a microbial process, is a key component and integral part of the nitrogen (N) cycle. Soil N is in a constant state of flux, moving and changing chemical forms. During nitrification, a relatively immobile N-form (NH 4 + ) is converted into highly mobile nitrate-N (NO 3 − ). The nitrate formed is susceptible to losses via leaching and conversion to gaseous forms via denitrification. Often less than 30% of the applied N fertilizer is recovered in intensive agricultural systems, largely due to losses associated with and following nitrification. Nitrogen-use efficiency (NUE) is defined as the biomass produced per unit of assimilated N and is a conservative function in most biological systems. A better alternative is to define NUE as the dry matter produced per unit N applied and strive for improvements in agronomic yields through N recovery. Suppressing nitrification along with its associated N losses is potentially a key part in any strategy to improve N recovery and agronomic NUE. In many mature N-limited ecosystems, nitrification is reduced to a relatively minor flux. In such systems there is a high degree of internal N cycling with minimal loss of N. In contrast, in most high-production agricultural systems nitrification is a major process in N cycling with the resulting N losses and inefficiencies. This review presents the current state of knowledge on nitrification and associated N losses, and discusses strategies for controlling nitrification in agricultural systems. Limitations of the currently available nitrification inhibitors are highlighted. The concept of biological nitrification inhibition (BNI) is proposed for controlling nitrification in agricultural systems utilizing traits found in natural ecosystems. It is emphasized that suppression of nitrification in agricultural systems is a critical step required for improving agronomic NUE and maintaining environmental quality.

Keywords: agriculture; biological nitrification inhibition (BNI); environment; global warming; nitrification inhibitors; nitrogen-use efficiency

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Crop Production and Environment Division, Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), Ibaraki, 305-8686, Japan 2: International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Patancheru, 502 324, India 3: Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, USA 4: Food Science and Technology Division, Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), Ibaraki, 305-8686, Japan 5: Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS), Ibaraki, 305-8686, Japan 6: Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute, Centro Internacional de Agricultura tropical (CIAT), Cali, A.A. 6713, Colombia

Publication date: 2006-07-01

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