Physical constraints for respiration in microbial hotspots in soil and their importance for denitrification

Schlüter, Steffen; Zawallich, Jan; Vogel, Hans-Jörg; Dörsch, Peter

Soil denitrification is the most important terrestrial process returning reactive nitrogen to the atmosphere, but remains poorly understood. In upland soils, denitrification occurs in hotspots of enhanced microbial activity, even under well-aerated conditions, and causes harmful emissions of nitric (NO) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The timing and magnitude of such emissions are difficult to predict due to the delicate balance of oxygen (O2) consumption and diffusion in soil. To study how spatial distribution of hotspots affects O2 exchange and denitrification, we embedded microbial hotspots composed of porous glass beads saturated with growing cultures of either Agrobacterium tumefaciens (a denitrifier lacking N2O reductase) or Paracoccus denitrificans (a “complete” denitrifier) in different architectures (random vs. layered) in sterile sand that was adjusted to different water saturations (30 %, 60 %, 90 %). Gas kinetics (O2, CO2, NO, N2O and N2) were measured at high temporal resolution in batch mode. Air connectivity, air distance and air tortuosity were determined by X-ray tomography after the experiment. The hotspot architecture exerted strong control on microbial growth and timing of denitrification at low and intermediate saturations, because the separation distance between the microbial hotspots governed local oxygen supply. Electron flow diverted to denitrification in anoxic hotspot centers was low (2 %–7 %) but increased markedly (17 %–27 %) at high water saturation. X-ray analysis revealed that the air phase around most of the hotspots remained connected to the headspace even at 90 % saturation, suggesting that the threshold response of denitrification to soil moisture could be ascribed to increasing tortuosity of air-filled pores and the distance from the saturated hotspots to these air-filled pores. Our findings suggest that denitrification and its gaseous product stoichiometry depend not only on the amount of microbial hotspots in aerated soil, but also on their spatial distribution. We demonstrate that combining measurements of microbial activity with quantitative analysis of diffusion lengths using X-ray tomography provides unprecedented insights into physical constraints regulating soil microbial respiration in general and denitrification in particular. This paves the way to using observable soil structural attributes to predict denitrification and to parameterize models. Further experiments with natural soil structure, carbon substrates and microbial communities are required to devise and parametrize denitrification models explicit for microbial hotspots.

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Schlüter, Steffen / Zawallich, Jan / Vogel, Hans-Jörg / et al: Physical constraints for respiration in microbial hotspots in soil and their importance for denitrification. 2019. Copernicus Publications.

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