Image-based quantification of soil microbial dead zones induced by nitrogen fertilization

S.A. Ruiz, D.M. McKay Fletcher, A. Boghi, K.A. Williams, S.J. Duncan, C.P. Scotson, C. Petroselli, T.G.S. Dias, D.R. Chadwick, D.L. Jones, T. Roose

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Microbial communities in agricultural soils underpin many ecosystem services including the maintenance of soil structure, food production, water purification and carbon storage. However, the impact of fertilization on the health of microbial communities is not well understood. This study investigates the spatial and temporal dynamics of nitrogen (N) transport away from a fertilizer granule with pore scale resolution. Specifically, we examined how soil structure and moisture content influence fertilizer derived N movement through the soil pore network and the subsequent impact of on soil microbial communities. We develop a mathematical model to describe N transport and reactions in soil at the pore-scale. Using X-ray Computed Tomography scans, we reconstructed a microscale description of a soil-pore geometry as a computational mesh. Solving two-phase water/air model produced pore-scale water distributions at 15, 30 and 70% water-filled pore volume. The N-speciation model considered ammonium (NH4+), nitrate (NO3−) and dissolved organic N (DON), and included N immobilization, ammonification and nitrification processes, as well as diffusion in soil solution. We simulated the dissolution of a fertilizer pellet and a pore scale N cycle at three different water saturations. To aid interpretation of the model results, microbial activity at a range of N concentrations was measured. The model showed that the diffusion and concentration of N in water films is critically dependent upon soil moisture and N species. We predict that the maximum NH4+ and NO3− concentrations in soil solution around the pellet under dry conditions are in the order of 1 × 103 and 1 × 104 mol m−3 respectively, and under wet conditions 2 × 102 and 1 × 103 mol m−3, respectively. Supporting experimental evidence suggests that these concentrations would be sufficient to reduce microbial activity in the short-term in the zone immediately around the fertilizer pellet (ranging from 0.9 to 3.8 mm), causing a major loss of soil biological functioning. This model demonstrates the importance of pore-scale processes in regulating N movement and their interactions with the soil microbiome.
Original languageEnglish
Article number138197
Number of pages11
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Early online date2 Apr 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2020


  • Nitrogen cycling
  • Fertilizer dynamics
  • Pore-scale modeling
  • Soil health
  • Diffusion
  • Microbial activity
  • UKRI
  • NERC
  • BB/L025620/1
  • BB/P004180/1
  • BB/P004539/1
  • BB/N013468/1
  • NE/L00237/1
  • EP/M020355/1


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