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Title: PUNCS: Towards Predictive Understanding of Nitrogen Cycling in Soils

In anoxic environments, the major nitrate/nitrite-consuming processes are respiratory ammonification (also known as dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium) and denitrification (i.e., the formation of the gaseous products N2O and N2). Respiratory ammonification oxidizes more carbon per mole of nitrate than denitrification and generates a cation (NH4+), which is retained in soils and bioavailable for plants. Thus, these processes have profoundly different impacts on N retention and greenhouse gas (CO2, N2O) emissions. Microbes capable of respiratory ammonification or denitrification coexist but the environmental controls over these competing nitrate/nitrite-reducing processes are largely unknown. With the current level of understanding, predictions under what environmental conditions respiratory ammonification activity predominates leading to N-retention rather than N-loss are tenuous. Further, the diversity of genes encoding the ammonium-forming nitrite reductase NrfA is poorly defined hampering the development of tools to assess and monitor this activity in environmental systems. Incomplete denitrification leads to N2O, a gas implicated in ozone layer destruction and climate change. The conversion of the greenhouse gas N2O to benign N2 is catalyzed by N2O reductase, the characteristic enzyme system of complete denitrifiers. Thus, efforts to estimate N2O conversion to N2 have focused on the well-characterized denitrifier nosZ genes; however, our understanding of themore » diversity of genes and organisms contributing to N2O consumption is incomplete. This paucity of information limits the development of more accurate, predictive models for C- and N-fluxes and greenhouse gas emissions. A comprehensive analysis of the key catalyst of respiratory ammonification, ammonia-forming nitrite reductase NrfA, revealed the evolutionary history of nrfA and identified novel diagnostic features, allowing optimized primer design for nrfA monitoring. Further, a novel group of functional “atypical” nosZ genes was found indicating that a much broader diversity of genes and organisms contribute to consumption of N2O. The atypical nosZ genes are distributed in soil ecosystems and often outnumber their typical counterparts, emphasizing their potential role in N2O consumption in soils and possibly other environments. Kinetic studies revealed that organisms with atypical NosZ exhibit significantly higher affinity to N2O, indicating that the relative activity of bacteria with typical versus atypical NosZ control N2O emissions and determine a soil’s N2O sink capacity. Collectively, the discoveries made under the PUNCS project improve understanding of N- and associated C-cycling processes in soils, enable the design of enhanced monitoring tools, and allow a larger research community to generate comprehensive datasets required to generate Earth System Models with higher predictive power.« less
ORCiD logo [1] ;  [2] ;  [3]
  1. Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN (United States). Dept. of Microbiology. Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Center for Environmental Biotechnology; Oak Ridge National Lab. (ORNL), Oak Ridge, TN (United States). Biosciences Division
  2. Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta, GA (United States)
  3. Univ. of Illinois, Urbana, IL (United States)
Publication Date:
OSTI Identifier:
Report Number(s):
DOE Contract Number:
Resource Type:
Technical Report
Research Org:
Univ. of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN (United States)
Sponsoring Org:
USDOE Office of Science (SC), Biological and Environmental Research (BER) (SC-23)
Contributing Orgs:
Univ. of Illinois, Urbana, IL (United States); Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta, GA (United States)
Country of Publication:
United States
54 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES; 59 BASIC BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES Nitrogen cycle; nitrous oxide; greenhouse gas emissions; nrfA and nosZ gene diversity and distribution; monitoring tools