Soil organic nitrogen (N) is a critical resource for plants and microbes, but the processes that govern its cycle are not well-described. To promote a holistic understanding of soil N dynamics, we need an integrated model that links soil organic matter (SOM) cycling to bioavailable N in both unmanaged and managed landscapes, including agroecosystems. We present a framework that unifies recent conceptual advances in our understanding of three critical steps in bioavailable N cycling: organic N (ON) depolymerization and solubilization; bioavailable N sorption and desorption on mineral surfaces; and microbial ON turnover including assimilation, mineralization, and the recycling of microbial products. Consideration of the balance between these processes provides insight into the sources, sinks, and flux rates of bioavailable N. By accounting for interactions among the biological, physical, and chemical controls over ON and its availability to plants and microbes, our conceptual model unifies complex mechanisms of ON transformation in a concrete conceptual framework that is amenable to experimental testing and translates into ideas for new management practices. This framework will allow researchers and practitioners to use common measurements of particulate organic matter (POM) and mineral-associated organic matter (MAOM) to design strategic organic N-cycle interventions that optimize ecosystem productivity and minimize environmental N loss.
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