Biological nitrogen fixation in trees in agro-ecosystems

Abstract

The integration of trees, especially nitrogen fixing trees (NFTs), into agroforestry and silvo-pastoral systems can make a major contribution to sustainable agriculture by restoring and maintaining soil fertility, and in combating erosion and desertification as well as providing fuelwood. The particular advantage of NFTs is their biological nitrogen fixation (BNF), their ability to establish in nitrogen-deficient soils and the benefits of the nitrogen fixed (and extra organic matter) to succeeding or associated crops.

The importance of NFTs leads to the question of how we can maximise or optimize their effects and how we can manage BNF and the transfer of nitrogen to associated or succeeding plantings. To be able to achieve these goals, suitable methods of measuring BNF in trees are necessary. The total nitrogen difference (TND) method is simple, but is better suited for low than high soil N conditions. The acetylene reduction assay (ARA), although sensitive and simple, has many technical limitations especially for NFTs, and the estimates of BNF have generally been very low, compared to other methods. For NFTs, the 15N techniques are still under development, but have already given some promising results (e.g., has been used to measure large genetic variability in BNF within different NFTs).

Various factors affect BNF in trees. They include the age of trees, the microbial component, soil moisture, temperature, salinity, pH, soil N level and plant nutrient deficiencies. Some of the factors, e.g. temperature, affect the symbiosis more than plant growth, and differences in the effects of these factors on BNF in different NFT genotypes have been reported. These factors and research needs for improving BNF in trees are discussed.

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Danso, S.K.A., Bowen, G.D. & Sanginga, N. Biological nitrogen fixation in trees in agro-ecosystems. Plant Soil 141, 177–196 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00011316

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Key words

  • A-value
  • acetylene reduction assay
  • agroforestry
  • isotope dilution
  • 15N
  • nitrogen fixation
  • nodules
  • trees
  • ureide technique