Biochar and pH as Drivers of Greenhouse Gas Production in Denitrification Systems
Davis IV, James Martin
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Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a greenhouse gas (GHG) with 300 times the radiative forcing in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide (CO2), and has recently become a subject of great concern because the nitrogen (N) fertilizers which have been necessary to increase agricultural productivity have also dramatically increased N2O emissions from agroecosystems. Many N control practices have been suggested and implemented in agroecosystems, but their ability to simultaneously remove reactive N from the environment and prevent the production of N2O is, at best poorly understood. The goal of this work is to characterize environmental controls on production of N2O in denitrifying bioreactors. The review portion of this work first discusses the geologic history of the N cycle, how its past and present processes differ, and how it is being affected by human activity. It then explores the N cycle's biochemical pathways, reviews the controls for each of its steps, and discusses the environmental drivers of these controls. The review closes with a discussion of environmental N management strategies. The experimental portion of this work further explores these concepts by observing how biochar amendment and the modification of pH affect N2O production in the denitrification pathway in denitrifying bioreactors. Both pH and biochar have previously been shown to affect N2O production and many N management practices utilize biochar or manipulate pH to increase N retention. The objectives of the experiment were to: 1) Examine headspace N2O concentration in sealed, biochar-amended, denitrifying bioreactors; 2) Determine if the effects of pH on N2O production differ in biochar-amended systems versus controls (under acidic, unbuffered, and buffered conditions); 3) Quantify key denitrification genes (nirK, nirS, nosZ) in each treatment combination. Experimental results showed biochar treatment to significantly increase N2O emissions, a result which runs contrary to most, but not all studies regarding its effects on N2O production. Differences between treatments decreased with increasing pH levels. Biochar did not exhibit significant effects on individual denitrification genes, but it did show influence on the ratios of their populations. On the other hand, pH was found to have significant effects on nirS and nosZ populations. Differences in N2O production between biochar and controls were thus explained by biochar's chemical effects, likely its ability to increase denitrification activity. Developing an understanding of the mechanisms behind these differences will require using a combination of isotope tracing, enzyme assays, and mass balance approaches. Future microbial work in biochar-amended systems should attempt to characterize differences in gene expression, overall community structure, and long-term population trends in the genes of interest. The combination of these approaches should allow researchers to better predict where N2O production will occur and develop strategies to mitigate it while simultaneously increasing food production to meet the demands of a growing population.
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