Alternative nitrogenase activity in the environment and nitrogen cycle implications

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Biological nitrogen fixation, the main natural input of fixed nitrogen into the biosphere, is catalyzed by Mo-, V-, or Fe-only nitrogenase metalloenzymes. Although “alternative” V- and Fe-only nitrogenase genes are found in many environments, the contribution of these isoenzymes to N2 fixation is unknown. Here we present a new method (ISARA, isotopic acetylene reduction assay) that distinguishes canonical Mo and alternative nitrogenase activities based on in vivo 13C fractionation of acetylene reduction to ethylene (13εMo = 13.1–14.7 ‰, 13εV = 7.5–8.8 ‰, 13εFe = 5.8–6.5 ‰). ISARA analyses indicate significant contributions of alternative nitrogen fixation in boreal cyanolichens and salt marshes ( 10–40 % acetylene reduction, 20–55 % N2 fixed). These results affect the quantitative interpretation of natural abundance 15N data or traditional acetylene reduction assays. They also invite a reexamination of the conditions under which the different nitrogenase isozymes are active and suggest significant interactions between the cycles of nitrogen and trace metals. © 2016, Springer International Publishing Switzerland.