Smercina, D. N., S. E. Evans, M. L. Friesen, and L. K. Tiemann. 2019. To fix or not to fix: Controls on free-living nitrogen fixation in the rhizosphere. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 85:e02546-18.
Free-living nitrogen fixation (FLNF) in the rhizosphere, or N fixation by heterotrophic bacteria living on/near root surfaces, is ubiquitous and a significant source of N in some terrestrial systems. FLNF is also of interest in crop production as an alternative to chemical fertilizer, potentially reducing production costs and ameliorating negative environmental impacts of fertilizer N additions. Despite this interest, a mechanistic understanding of controls (e.g., carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and nutrient availability) on FLNF in the rhizosphere is lacking but necessary. FLNF is distinct from and occurs under more diverse and dynamic conditions than symbiotic N fixation; therefore, predicting FLNF rates and understanding controls on FLNF has proven difficult. This has led to large gaps in our understanding of FLNF, and studies aimed at identifying controls on FLNF are needed. Here, we provide a mechanistic overview of FLNF, including how various controls may influence FLNF in the rhizosphere in comparison with symbiotic N fixation occurring in plant nodules where environmental conditions are moderated by the plant. We apply this knowledge to a real-world example, the bioenergy crop switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), to provide context of how FLNF may function in a managed system. We also highlight future challenges to assessing FLNF and understanding how FLNF functions in the environment and significantly contributes to plant N availability and productivity.
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