Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 40, Issue 2, pp 437–446 | Cite as

Organic Nitrogen Runoff in Coastal Marshes: Effects on Ecosystem Denitrification

  • Philip O. LeeEmail author
  • Julia A. Cherry
  • Jennifer W. Edmonds


Since the 1970s, a shift from inorganic to organic nitrogen-based fertilizer has occurred worldwide, and now urea constitutes greater than 50 % of the global nitrogenous fertilizer usage. As a result, concentrations of urea will likely increase in waterways, facilitating transport to coastal wetland habitats where microbial-mediated transformations have the ability to alleviate excess nitrogen (N) pollution. To assess this biological potential for N removal in a brackish marsh ecosystem, we conducted a 5-day laboratory experiment where we monitored denitrification rate potentials (DNP) in microcosms with intact, vegetated sods, testing treatments of different urea solutions (37.5 and 166.5 mM urea) and a nitrate solution (98.9 mM KNO3). The addition of urea, regardless of concentration, did not stimulate DNP, while nitrate additions did. Ammonium (NH4 +) accumulated in the porewater in response to urea treatments, with approximately 80–90 % of urea being hydrolyzed during the experiment. Nitrate concentrations in the nitrate treatment were near zero by the end of the experiment, while measureable amounts of urea were still present in both urea treatments. An increase in DNP followed nitrate additions, but an accumulation of NH4 + after urea additions suggests that urea pollution may not be removed by coastal wetlands as efficiently as nitrate pollution, especially when nitrification is limited under anaerobic conditions. Further work exploring the most likely pathways for removal of excess NH4 + is necessary to describe the potential impact that increased urea concentrations could have on coastal ecosystems.


Brackish marsh Eutrophication Nitrogen cycling Urea 



We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Dr. Behzad Mortazavi for his support and allowing us to complete our DNP analysis in his laboratory, and Joshua Jones for his guidance at Big Branch Marsh NWR. For their help in the field and with additional microcosm and sample preparation, we thank Jamie Galloway, Adam Constantin, and Mindy Russo. Also, we thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments and edits during the review process of this manuscript. Funding for this work was provided by the University of Alabama Howard Hughes Medical Institute undergraduate research program.

Supplementary material

12237_2016_161_MOESM1_ESM.doc (72 kb)
Online Resource 1 Greenhouse air temperature and microcosms soil temperature during experimental duration (DOC 71 kb)
12237_2016_161_MOESM2_ESM.doc (44 kb)
Online Resource 2 Change in porewater soluble reactive phosphorus measured in treatments. Points are mean values measured from replicate microcosms (n = 5). Error bars (where visible) are standard deviation (DOC 44 kb)
12237_2016_161_MOESM3_ESM.doc (102 kb)
Online Resource 3 Change in porewater dissolved organic carbon in treatments. Points are mean values measured from replicate microcosms (n = 5). Error bars (where visible) are standard deviation (DOC 102 kb)
12237_2016_161_MOESM4_ESM.doc (40 kb)
Online Resource 4 Change in porewater nitrite in treatments. Points are mean values measured from replicate microcosms (n = 5). Error bars (where visible) are standard deviation (DOC 39 kb)


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Philip O. Lee
    • 1
    Email author
  • Julia A. Cherry
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jennifer W. Edmonds
    • 3
  1. 1.The Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Alabama-TuscaloosaTuscaloosaUSA
  2. 2.New CollegeUniversity of Alabama-TuscaloosaTuscaloosaUSA
  3. 3.Physical and Life SciencesNevada State CollegeHendersonUSA

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