Ammonium Sensitivity of Biological Nitrogen Fixation by Anaerobic Diazotrophs in Cultures and Benthic Marine Sediments

Romain Darnajoux, Linta Reji, Xin Rei Zhang, Katja E. Luxem, Xinning Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


New bioavailable nitrogen (N) from biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) is critical for the N budget and productivity of marine ecosystems. Nitrogen-fixing organisms typically inactivate BNF when less metabolically costly N sources, like ammonium (NH4+), are available. Yet, several studies have observed BNF in benthic marine sediments linked to anaerobic sulfate-reducing bacteria and fermenting firmicutes despite high porewater NH4+ concentrations (10–1,500 μM). To better understand the regulating controls and importance of benthic marine BNF, we evaluate BNF sensitivity to NH4+ in benthic diazotrophs using incubations of increasing biogeochemical complexity. BNF by cultures of model anaerobic diazotrophs (sulfate-reducer Desulfovibrio vulgaris var. Hildenborough, fermenter Clostridium pasteurianum strain W5), sulfate-reducing sediment enrichment cultures, and sediments from three Northeastern salt marshes (USA) is highly sensitive to external NH4+. BNF is inhibited by NH4+ beyond an apparent threshold [NH4+] of 2 μM in liquid cultures, most closely reflecting the true cellular sensitivity of BNF to NH4+. Sediment slurries exhibited an apparent threshold [NH4+] of 9 μM. Consistent with other studies, we find SRB-like nitrogenase (nifH) gene and transcripts are prevalent in sediments. Our survey of porewater NH4+ data from diverse sediments suggests the broad applicability of inhibition thresholds measured here and confinement of benthic BNF to surficial sediments. Variations in BNF inhibition timing, NH4+ uptake rate, sediment composition, and biophysics could affect measurements of the apparent sensitivity of benthic BNF to NH4+. We propose NH4+ transporter affinity as a fundamental mechanistic constraint on NH4+ control of cellular BNF to improve biogeochemical models of N cycling.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021JG006596
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Forestry
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Palaeontology


  • benthic microbial ecology
  • benthic nitrogen fixation
  • heterotrophic diazotrophy
  • marine nitrogen cycling


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