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Study reveals dynamics of microbes and nitrate
Date:8/7/2014

Human tampering with global carbon balances has received massive public attention because of its effects on global warming, but we pay less attention to another set of chemical processes we are similarly disrupting: human input to the nitrogen cycle. Unfortunately, the story of nitrogen transformations in the biosphere is also less understood.

In modern times, humans developed the technology to turn nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into a biologically available form to be used as fertilizer. Before this, bio-available or "fixed" nitrogen was only created sparingly by natural forces such as lightning and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, while some fixed nitrogen was always being eliminated by denitrifying bacteria, which returned nitrogen to the atmosphere. This change to the planet's chemical balance has been critical because now the majority of life-essential nitrogen comes from human, not environmental, sources. Run-off from this systematic massive input of fixed nitrogen in managed natural and engineered environments (through agriculture and aquaculture), has lead to immediate problems like eutrophication in lakes and reservoirs and the oceans (with resulting dead zones), but also has long-term effects on the atmosphere.

Like carbon, nitrogen is naturally cycled and mediated in local ecosystems and integrated environmental processes by global cycling facilitated by microbial communities. It has been well established that microbes take biologically usable nitrate (NO3 -) and process it in one of two critically important pathways denitrification, which returns it to biologically inert nitrogen gas (N2,), or ammonification, which turns nitrate into ammonium (NH4+) and keeps the nitrogen biologically useable.

Because microbial ecosystems are vastly complex and difficult to monitor in nature, the environmental factors that determine whether microbial communities facilitate either the denitrification or the ammonification processes have
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Contact: James Hathaway
jbhathaw@uncc.edu
704-687-5743
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Source:Eurekalert

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