Understanding microbes improves the prediction of biogeochemical cycles

Published in Microbiology
Understanding microbes improves the prediction of biogeochemical cycles

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Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a potent greenhouse gas and ozone-depleting agent. The ocean contributes about 20% of the global N2O emissions to the atmosphere, but how the marine N2O cycle responds to environmental and climate changes is not well constrained. N2O is produced and consumed by microbes. N2O can be produced from nitrification, nitrifier-denitrification and denitrification, but it only has one major consumption pathway, the reduction of N2O to N2. However, the consumption of N2O is much less studied than its production in marine systems. In particular, the lack of kinetics parameters and oxygen sensitivity for marine N2O consumption hinders the accurate prediction of N2O cycling in a changing environment.

When we started to perform N2O consumption experiments, we understood why N2O consumption is less studied. Measuring N2O consumption is not trivial, because both the substrate and product of the reaction are gases. Adding N2O gas and measuring N2 gas are technically difficult and I feel crazy working all day with a syringe that appears to be completely empty. Handling gases can easily introduce big errors, partly because you cannot visually verify volumes or transfers, or note leaks. To get more reliable results, we used multiple replicate timepoints: 15 incubation bottles (3 bottles per time point * 5 time points) to determine one rate. In total, we sampled, incubated and measured ~3000 bottles to explore N2O consumption in the current work.

Figure 1 one of the ~3000 bottles with seawater from the Eastern Tropical North Pacific.

We went to the Eastern Tropical North Pacific (ETNP) Ocean in 2018 on R/V Sally Ride to investigate N2O cycling. The ETNP is one of the three major oxygen minimum zones. Marine oxygen minimum zones, featuring a full spectrum of oxygen conditions (from oxic to anoxic), are regions of intense N2O production and consumption. 

Of course, science comes with surprises. While N2O consumption was thought to be restricted to anoxic zones, we had previously found DNA and transcripts of N2O-consuming microbes in both oxic and anoxic layers of the Eastern Tropical South Pacific oxygen minimum zone (Sun et al., 2017). Here in the ETNP, we for the first time experimentally proved that N2O-consuming microbes from the oxic layer not only consume N2O, but do so at a much faster rate than microbes from anoxic zones, if anoxia occurs! This points to the importance of a dynamic region: the fluctuating oxycline of the marine oxygen minimum zone, which will stimulate N2O consumption and probably also N2O production.

Figure 2. Last day on R/V Sally Ride before landing Manzanillo, Mexico.

The global implications of this newly found N2O sink in oxic layers depend on how N2O consumption in both oxic and anoxic layers responds to environmental conditions. We provide previously lacking information for predicting the marine N2O budget by experimentally determining kinetic parameters in both oxic and anoxic seawater. We then applied these parameters to a biogeochemical model, which improves the prediction of N2O concentration profiles. This study is inspired by the discovery of N2O-consuming microbes in oxic seawater. Thus, understanding microbes in a changing environment can help us understand and better predict biogeochemical cycles.

Check out our paper here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41396-020-00861-2

I want to thank Professor Bess B Ward for her valuable editorial advice on this post.

Xin Sun did this work when she was a graduate student in Professor Bess B Ward’s lab in the Department of Geosciences at Princeton University. Xin became a Hutchinson Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Biospheric Studies and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University in December 2020.

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