Nitrogen Fixation and Hydrocarbon-Oxidizing Bacteria

  • J. Foght
Reference work entry
Part of the Handbook of Hydrocarbon and Lipid Microbiology book series (HHLM)


The ability to reduce atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia (N2 fixation) is well known in diverse prokaryotes, and many microbes oxidize hydrocarbons ranging from methane to longer-chain n-alkanes, alkenes, and aromatics under aerobic or anaerobic conditions. Although this combination of activities should provide a selective advantage to microbes in hydrocarbon-contaminated N-limited environments, surprisingly few isolates have been reported to simultaneously, or even sequentially, fix N2 while growing on hydrocarbons. Notable exceptions are methane-oxidizing bacteria that fix nitrogen in culture but whose N2-fixing significance in the environment is still controversial. In axenic culture, demonstration of N2 assimilation into biomass linked to hydrocarbon utilization should include confirmation of the presence and expression of appropriate genes in addition to demonstrated enzymatic activity and quantitation of hydrocarbon removal; unfortunately, such rigorous studies are scarce. N2 fixation in situ by heterotrophic and/or photosynthetic microbial communities supported by liquid hydrocarbon utilization has been inferred in recent studies, some of which are well documented but others less persuasive. An emerging model is that microbial assemblages in situ may exhibit “distributed metabolism” where one partner fixes N2 and the other oxidizes hydrocarbons, with exchange of metabolic products. This model may best reflect in situ activity in photosynthetic microbial mats, but whether it also applies to anaerobic environments or aerobic habitats such as the rhizosphere is unresolved. Phytoremediation may be a valuable option for oil spill cleanup particularly in N-limited soils, but adding plants as a third partner further complicates assignation of biochemical contributions. This chapter reviews the scant literature on diazotrophic hydrocarbon degradation and highlights knowledge gaps for future research.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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