Molybdenum and phosphorus interact to constrain asymbiotic nitrogen fixation in tropical forests

Nina Wurzburger, Jean Philippe Bellenger, Anne M.L. Kraepiel, Lars O. Hedin

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121 Scopus citations


Biological di-nitrogen fixation (N 2) is the dominant natural source of new nitrogen to land ecosystems. Phosphorus (P) is thought to limit N 2 fixation in many tropical soils, yet both molybdenum (Mo) and P are crucial for the nitrogenase reaction (which catalyzes N 2 conversion to ammonia) and cell growth. We have limited understanding of how and when fixation is constrained by these nutrients in nature. Here we show in tropical forests of lowland Panama that the limiting element on asymbiotic N 2 fixation shifts along a broad landscape gradient in soil P, where Mo limits fixation in P-rich soils while Mo and P co-limit in P-poor soils. In no circumstance did P alone limit fixation. We provide and experimentally test a mechanism that explains how Mo and P can interact to constrain asymbiotic N 2 fixation. Fixation is uniformly favored in surface organic soil horizons - a niche characterized by exceedingly low levels of available Mo relative to P. We show that soil organic matter acts to reduce molybdate over phosphate bioavailability, which, in turn, promotes Mo limitation in sites where P is sufficient. Our findings show that asymbiotic N 2 fixation is constrained by the relative availability and dynamics of Mo and P in soils. This conceptual framework can explain shifts in limitation status across broad landscape gradients in soil fertility and implies that fixation depends on Mo and P in ways that are more complex than previously thought.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere33710
JournalPloS one
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 26 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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