Agronomy for Sustainable Development

, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 155–172

Models of biological nitrogen fixation of legumes. A review

  • Yanyan Liu
  • Lianhai Wu
  • John A. Baddeley
  • Christine A. Watson
Review Article


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.


nitrogen fixation soil mineral nitrogen legume simulation review 


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Copyright information

© INRA and Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Yanyan Liu
    • 1
    • 2
  • Lianhai Wu
    • 2
  • John A. Baddeley
    • 2
  • Christine A. Watson
    • 2
  1. 1.College of Resources and Environmental SciencesChina Agricultural UniversityBeijingChina
  2. 2.Crop and Soil Systems Research GroupScottish Agricultural College, Craibstone EstateAberdeenUK
  3. 3.North Wyke ResearchOkehamptonUK

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