Rapid abiotic transformation of nitrate in an acid forest soil

David Bryan Dail, Eric A. Davidson, Jon Chorover

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

150 Scopus citations


Nitrate immobilization into organic matter is thought to require catalysis by the enzymes of soil microorganisms. However, recent studies suggest that nitrate added to soil is immobilized rapidly and this process may include abiotic pathways. We amended living and sterilized soil with 15N-labeled nitrate and nitrite to investigate biotic and abiotic immobilization. We report rapid transformation of nitrate in incubations of the O layer of forest soils that have been sterilized to prevent microbial activity and to denature microbial enzymes. Approximately 30, 40, and 60% of the 15N-labeled nitrate added to live, irradiated, or autoclaved organic horizon soil disappeared from the extractable inorganic-N pool in less than 15 minutes. About 5% or less of the nitrate was recovered as insoluble organic N in live and sterilized soil, and the remainder was determined to be soluble organic N. Added 15N-nitrite, however, was either lost to gaseous N or incorporated into an insoluble organic N form in both live and sterile organic soils. Hence, the fate and pathway of apparent abiotic nitrate immobilization differs from the better-known mechanisms of nitrite reactions with soil organic matter. Nitrate and nitrite added to live A-horizon soil was largely recovered in the form added, suggesting that rapid conversion of nitrate to soluble organic-N may be limited to C-rich organic horizons. The processes by which this temperate forest soil transforms added nitrate to soluble organic-N cannot be explained by established mechanisms, but appears to be due to abiotic processes in the organic horizon.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)131-146
Number of pages16
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2001


  • N
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate immobilization
  • Nitrogen cycling
  • Nitrogen deposition
  • Temperate forests

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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