HONO Emissions from Soil Bacteria as a Major Source of Atmospheric Reactive Nitrogen

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Science  13 Sep 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6151, pp. 1233-1235
DOI: 10.1126/science.1242266

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From Soil to Sky

Trace gases emitted either through the activity of microbial communities or from abiotic reactions in the soil influence atmospheric chemistry. In laboratory column experiments using several soil types, Oswald et al. (p. 1233) showed that soils from arid regions and farmlands can produce substantial quantities of nitric oxide (NO) and nitrous acid (HONO). Ammonia-oxidizing bacteria are the primary source of HONO at comparable levels to NO, thus serving as an important source of reactive nitrogen to the atmosphere.


Abiotic release of nitrous acid (HONO) in equilibrium with soil nitrite (NO2) was suggested as an important contributor to the missing source of atmospheric HONO and hydroxyl radicals (OH). The role of total soil-derived HONO in the biogeochemical and atmospheric nitrogen cycles, however, has remained unknown. In laboratory experiments, we found that for nonacidic soils from arid and arable areas, reactive nitrogen emitted as HONO is comparable with emissions of nitric oxide (NO). We show that ammonia-oxidizing bacteria can directly release HONO in quantities larger than expected from the acid-base and Henry’s law equilibria of the aqueous phase in soil. This component of the nitrogen cycle constitutes an additional loss term for fixed nitrogen in soils and a source for reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere.

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