δ15N as an integrator of the nitrogen cycle
Natural abundances of the rare stable isotope of nitrogen, 15N, are now being used widely in research on N cycling in organisms and ecosystems. 15N natural abundances are used in fundamentally different ways from traditional 15N tracers by integrating N cycle processes via N isotope fractionations and the mixing of various N-containing pools. This approach of using 15N natural abundances still requires certain technical and conceptual advances before it can be used routinely in ecological research. Here, the basis of the natural abundance 15N approach and opportunities for applying it in ecology are reviewed, and recent progress towards overcoming some of the key technical problems and in revealing large-scale patterns in N cycle processes is discussed.