Microbial ecosystem dynamics drive fluctuating nitrogen loss in marine anoxic zones

Justin L. Penn, Thomas Weber, Bonnie X. Chang, Curtis Deutsch

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


The dynamics of nitrogen (N) loss in the ocean’s oxygen-deficient zones (ODZs) are thought to be driven by climate impacts on ocean circulation and biological productivity. Here we analyze a data-constrained model of the microbial ecosystem in an ODZ and find that species interactions drive fluctuations in local- and regional-scale rates of N loss, even in the absence of climate variability. By consuming O2 to nanomolar levels, aerobic nitrifying microbes cede their competitive advantage for scarce forms of N to anaerobic denitrifying bacteria. Because anaerobes cannot sustain their own low-O2 niche, the physical O2 supply restores competitive advantage to aerobic populations, resetting the cycle. The resulting ecosystem oscillations induce a unique geochemical signature within the ODZ—short-lived spikes of ammonium that are found in measured profiles. The microbial ecosystem dynamics also give rise to variable ratios of anammox to heterotrophic denitrification, providing a mechanism for the unexplained variability of these pathways observed in the ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7220-7225
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 9 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Microbial ecology
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Oxygen minimum zones
  • Species oscillations


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