The influence of soil pH on denitrification: progress towards the understanding of this interaction over the last 50 years


  • M. ŠImek,

    Corresponding author
    1. Institute of Soil Biology, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic and Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of South Bohemia, Na sádkách 7, 370 05 České Budějovice, Czech Republic, and
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  • J. E. Cooper

    1. Department of Applied Plant Science, School of Agriculture and Food Science, Queen's University Belfast, Newforge Lane, Belfast BT9 5PX, UK
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Results from the pioneering research on the interactions between pH and denitrification in soil from the 1950s to the present are reviewed, the changing perceptions of this complex relationship are discussed, and the current status of the subject is assessed. Facets of this relationship that are analysed in detail include the direct or indirect influence of pH on overall denitrification rates in soils, changes in the composition of gaseous products that depend on pH, methods for measuring the process, the concept of an optimum pH for denitrification, and the adaptation of microbial denitrifying communities to acidic environments. The main conclusions to be drawn are as follows. Total gaseous emissions to the atmosphere (N2O, NO and N2) have repeatedly been shown to be less in acidic than in neutral or slightly alkaline soils. This may be attributable to smaller amounts of organic carbon and mineral nitrogen available to the denitrifying population under acid conditions rather than a direct effect of low pH on denitrification enzymes. Numerous laboratory and field studies have demonstrated that the ratio N2O:N2 is increased when the pH of soils is reduced. The relation between soil pH and potential denitrification as determined by various incubation methods remains unclear, results being influenced both by original conditions in soil samples and by unknown changes during incubation. The concept of an optimum pH for denitrification has been frequently proposed, but such a term has little or no meaning without reference to specific attributes of the process.