Models of biological nitrogen fixation of legumes. a review

Y Lu, L Wu, JA Baddeley, CA Watson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Leguminous crops have the ability to fix nitrogen (N) biologically from the atmosphere. This can benefit not only the legumes themselves but also any intercropped or subsequent crops, thus reducing or removing the need to apply N fertilizers. Improved quantification of legume biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) will provide better guidance for farmers on managing N to optimise productivity and reduce harmful losses to the environment. There are many techniques available for the direct quantitative measurement of legume BNF in the field and in controlled environments. However, these are time-consuming and therefore expensive, and generate data relevant only to the time and place of measurement. Alternatively, legume BNF can be estimated by either empirical models or dynamic mechanistic simulation models. Comparatively, simulation by a dynamic model is preferable for quantifying legume BNF, because of its capability to simulate the response of N fixation to a wide range of environmental variables and legume growth status. Currently there is no published review of the approaches used to simulate, rather than measure, legume BNF. This review of peer-reviewed literature shows that most simulation models estimate the N fixation rate from a pre-defined potential N fixation rate, adjusted by the response functions of soil temperature, soil/plant water status, soil/plant N concentration, plant carbon (C) supply and crop growth stage. Here, we highlight and compare the methods used to estimate the potential N fixation rate, and the response functions to simulate legume BNF, in nine widely-cited models over the last 30 years.We then assess their relative strengths in simulating legume BNF with varying biotic and abiotic factors, and identify the discrepancies between experimental findings and simulations. After this comparison, we identify the areas where there is the potential to improve legume BNF simulation in the future. These include; (1) consideration of photosynthetic C supply, (2) refining the various effects of soil mineral N concentration, (3) characterization and incorporation of excess soil water stress and other factors into models, and (4) incorporation of the effects of grazing, coexistence and competition with intercrops and weeds into models to improve their practical relevance to sustainable agricultural systems. This review clarifies, for the first time, the current progress in legume BNF quantification in simulation models, and provides guidance for their further development, combining fundamental experimental and modelling work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)155 - 172
Number of pages18
JournalAgronomy for Sustainable Development
Issue number1
Publication statusFirst published - 2010

Bibliographical note



  • Legume
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Review
  • Simulation
  • Soil mineral nitrogen


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