Get access

A mechanism of abiotic immobilization of nitrate in forest ecosystems: the ferrous wheel hypothesis


Eric A. Davidson, The Woods Hole Research Center, PO Box 296, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA, fax + 1 508 540 9900; +1 508 540 9700, e-mail:


Forest soils, rather than woody biomass, are the dominant long-term sink for N in forest fertilization studies and, by inference, for N from atmospheric deposition. Recent evidence of significant abiotic immobilization of inorganic-N in forest humus layers challenges a previously widely held view that microbial processes are the dominant pathways for N immobilization in soil. Understanding the plant, microbial, and abiotic mechanisms of N immobilization in forest soils has important implications for understanding current and future carbon budgets. Abiotic immobilization of nitrate is particularly perplexing because the thermodynamics of nitrate reduction in soils are not generally favorable under oxic conditions. Here we present preliminary evidence for a testable hypothesis that explains abiotic immobilization of nitrate in forest soils. Because iron (and perhaps manganese) plays a key role as a catalyst, with Fe(II) reducing nitrate and reduced forms of carbon then regenerating Fe(II), we call this ‘the ferrous wheel hypothesis’. After nitrate is reduced to nitrite, we hypothesize that nitrite reacts with dissolved organic matter through nitration and nitrosation of aromatic ring structures, thus producing dissolved organic nitrogen (DON). In addition to ignorance about mechanisms of DON production, little is known about DON dynamics in soil and its fate within ecosystems. Evidence from leaching and watershed studies suggests that DON production and consumption may be largely uncoupled from seasonal biological processes, although biological processes ultimately produce the DOC and reducing power that affect DON formation and the entire N cycle. The ferrous wheel hypothesis includes both biological and abiological processes, but the reducing power of plant-derived organic matter may build up over seasons and years while the abiotic reduction of nitrate and reaction of organic matter with nitrite may occur in a matter of seconds after nitrate enters the soil solution.