Denitrification of nitrogen released from senescing algal biomass in coastal agricultural headwater streams

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Received for publication October 2, 2008. Assimilation of inorganic N by photoautotrophs has positive impacts on nutrient retention; however this retention is only temporary. As the biomass senesces, organic and inorganic forms of N are released back to the stream where they can be further transformed (i.e., nitrification, denitrification) or exported downstream. The purpose of this study was to assess the fate of the remineralized N, particularly the potential for removal by denitrification. Experiments were conducted on intact sediment cores from streams in an agricultural watershed. Cores were amended with varying ages of algal leachate and denitrification rates were measured with a membrane inlet mass spectrometer. Results of this study demonstrated that senescing algal biomass stimulated denitrification rates and provided a source of N and labile C to denitrifiers. Regardless of leachate age, addition of leachate to intact cores revealed a net loss of dissolved inorganic N from the water column. Denitrification rates were most strongly related to concentrations of dissolved and particulate C in the overlying water and secondarily to C quality (molar C to N ratio of total dissolved C and N) and NO3– flux. Using a mass balance approach, the proportion of N from senescing algal biomass that was denitrified accounted for as much as 10% of the total dissolved nitrogen (TDN) and up to 100% of the NO3– during a 3-h experiment. These results suggest an important link between instream algal uptake and eventual denitrification thereby providing a pathway for permanent removal of watershed-derived N from the stream ecosystem.

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