, Volume 126, Issue 3, pp 251–267 | Cite as

The importance of abiotic reactions for nitrous oxide production

  • Xia Zhu-Barker
  • Amanda R. Cavazos
  • Nathaniel E. Ostrom
  • William R. Horwath
  • Jennifer B. GlassEmail author
Synthesis and Emerging Ideas


The continuous rise of atmospheric nitrous oxide (N2O) is an environmental issue of global concern. In biogeochemical studies, N2O production is commonly assumed to arise solely from enzymatic reactions in microbes and fungi. However, iron, manganese and organic compounds readily undergo redox reactions with intermediates in the nitrogen cycle that produce N2O abiotically under relevant environmental conditions at circumneutral pH. Although these abiotic N2O production pathways have been known to occur for close to a century, they are often neglected in modern ecological studies. In this Synthesis and Emerging Ideas paper, we highlight the defining characteristics, environmental controls, and isotopic signatures of abiotic reactions between nitrogen cycle intermediates (hydroxylamine, nitric oxide, and nitrite), redox-active metals (iron and manganese) and organic matter (humic and fulvic acids) that can lead to N2O production. We also discuss the emerging idea that abiotic reactions coupled to biotic processes have widespread ecological relevance and encourage consideration of abiotic production mechanisms in future biogeochemical investigations of N2O cycling.


Nitrous oxide Iron Manganese Soils Redox Metals Isotopes Site Preference 



We thank Martin Klotz, Lisa Stein, Nicolas Brüggemann, Bess Ward, and Fourth International Conference on Nitrification (ICoN4) participants for helpful discussions. We also thank Timothy A. Doane, G. Philip Robertson, associate editor R. Kelman Wieder, and four anonymous reviewers for thoughtful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. WRH and XZB acknowledge support provided by the J. G. Boswell Endowed Chair in Soil Science and USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA; Grant Number: 2011-67003-30371). ARC acknowledges support from the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program and the Georgia Institute of Technology Goizueta Foundation Fellowship. NEO acknowledges support from the NSF Geobiology and Low Temperature Geochemistry program (Grants 1053432 and 1348935). JBG acknowledges support from NASA Exobiology Grant NNX14AJ87G and a Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (NSF-CDEBI OCE-0939564) Small Research Grant.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Xia Zhu-Barker
    • 1
  • Amanda R. Cavazos
    • 2
  • Nathaniel E. Ostrom
    • 3
  • William R. Horwath
    • 1
  • Jennifer B. Glass
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Land, Air, and Water ResourcesUniversity of California DavisDavisUSA
  2. 2.School of Earth and Atmospheric SciencesGeorgia Institute of TechnologyAtlantaUSA
  3. 3.Department of Integrative BiologyMichigan State UniversityEast LansingUSA

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