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Denitrification is the process of reducing nitrate and nitrite, highly oxidised forms of nitrogen available for consumption by many groups of organisms, into gaseous nitrogen, which is far less accessible to life forms but makes up the bulk of our atmosphere. It can be thought of as the opposite of nitrogen fixation, which converts gaseous nitrogen into a more biologically available form. The process is performed by heterotrophic bacteria (such as Paracoccus denitrificans, Thiobacillus denitrificans, and various pseudomonads) from all main proteolytic groups. Denitrification and nitrification are parts of the nitrogen cycle.
Denitrification takes place under special conditions in both terrestrial and marine ecosystems. In general, it occurs when oxygen (which is a more favourable electron acceptor) is depleted, and bacteria turn to nitrate in order to respire organic matter. Because our atmosphere is rich with oxygen, denitrification only takes place in some soils and groundwater, wetlands, poorly ventilated corners of the ocean, and in seafloor sediments.
Denitrification proceeds through some combination of the following steps:
Or expressed as a redox reaction:
- 2NO3- + 10e- + 12H+ → N2 + 6H2O
Denitrification is the second step in the nitrification-denitrification process, the conventional way to remove nitrogen from sewage and municipal wastewater. It is also an instrumental process in riparian zones for the removal of excess nitrate from groundwater contaminated by fertiliser use.
Direct reduction from nitrate to ammonium (a process known as dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium or DNRA) is also possible for organisms that have the nrf-gene. This is less common than denitrification in most ecosystems as a means of nitrate reduction.
Reduction under anoxic conditions can also occur through process called anaerobic ammonia oxidation (Anammox), this reaction is expressed as the following:
- NH4+ + NO2- → N2 + 2H2O
Zumft, W.G. (1997): Cell biology and molecular basis of denitrification. In: Microbiol. Mol. Biol. Rev. Bd. 61, Nr. 4, S. 533-616. PMID 9409151 PDF