Balance of assimilative and dissimilative nitrogen processes in a diatom-rich tidal flat sediment
Tidal flat sediments are subject to repetitive mixing and resuspension events. In a short-term (24 h)
15N-labelling experiment, we investigated reactive nitrogen cycling in a tidal flat sediment following an experimentally induced resuspension event. We focused on (a) the relative importance of assimilatory versus dissimilatory processes and (b) the role of benthic microalgae therein.
15N-labelled substrate was added to homogenized sediment, and
15N was subsequently traced into sediment and dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) pools. Integration of results in a N-cycle model allowed us to quantify the proportion of major assimilatory and dissimilatory processes in the sediment.
Upon sediment disturbance, rates of dissimilatory processes like nitrification and denitrification were very high, but declined rapidly towards a steady state. Once this was reached, the balance between assimilation and dissimilation in this tidal mudflat was mainly dependent on the nitrogen source: nitrate was utilized almost exclusively dissimilatory via denitrification, whereas ammonium was rapidly assimilated, with about a quarter of this assimilation due to benthic microalgae (BMA). Benthic microalgae significantly affected the nitrogen recycling balance in sediments, because in the absence of BMA activity the recovering sediment turned from a net ammonium sink to a net source.
The driving mechanisms for assimilation or dissimilation accordingly appear to be ruled to a large extent by external physical forcing, with the entire system being capable of rapid shifts following environmental changes. Assimilatory pathways gain importance under stable conditions, with a substantial contribution of BMA to total assimilation.