Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Secret Ingredient For The Health Of Tropical Rainforests Discovered

Date:
December 10, 2008
Source:
Princeton University
Summary:
Scientists have found for the first time that tropical rainforests, a vital part of the Earth's ecosystem, rely on the rare trace element molybdenum to capture the nitrogen fertilizer needed to support their wildly productive growth. Most of the nitrogen that supports the rapid, lush growth of rainforests comes from tiny bacteria that can turn nitrogen in the air into fertilizer in the soil.

Dense tropical rainforest in Costa Rica. Scientists have found that most of the nitrogen that supports the rapid, lush growth of rainforests comes from tiny bacteria that can turn nitrogen in the air into fertilizer in the soil.
Credit: iStockphoto/Matt Tilghman

A team of researchers led by Princeton University scientists has found for the first time that tropical rainforests, a vital part of the Earth's ecosystem, rely on the rare trace element molybdenum to capture the nitrogen fertilizer needed to support their wildly productive growth. Most of the nitrogen that supports the rapid, lush growth of rainforests comes from tiny bacteria that can turn nitrogen in the air into fertilizer in the soil.

Until now, scientists had thought that phosphorus was the key element supporting the prodigious expansion of rainforests, according to Lars Hedin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University who led the research. But an experiment testing the effects of various elements on test plots in lowland rainforests on the Gigante Peninsula in the Barro Colorado Nature Monument in Panama showed that areas treated with molybdenum withdrew more nitrogen from the atmosphere than other elements.

"We were surprised," said Hedin, who is also a professor in the Princeton Environmental Institute. "It's not what we were expecting."

The report is detailed in the Dec. 7 online edition of Nature Geoscience.

Molybdenum, the team found, is essential for controlling the biological conversion of nitrogen in the atmosphere into natural soil nitrogen fertilizer, which in turn spurs plant growth. "Just like trace amounts of vitamins are essential for human health, this exceedingly rare trace metal is indispensable for the vital function of tropical rainforests in the larger Earth system," Hedin said. Molybdenum is 10,000 times less abundant than phosphorus and other major nutrients in these ecosystems.

The discovery has implications for global climate change policy, the scientists said. Previously, researchers knew little about rainforests' capacity to absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. If molybdenum is central to the biochemical processes involved in the uptake of carbon dioxide, then there may be limits to how much carbon that tropical rainforests can absorb.

The biological enzyme, nitrogenase, which converts atmospheric nitrogen into soil fertilizer, feeds on molybdenum, the researchers found. "Nitrogenase without molybdenum is like a car engine without spark plugs," said Alexander Barron, the lead author on the paper, who was a graduate student in Hedin's laboratory and earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton in 2007 and who now is working on climate legislation in Congress.

Other authors on the paper from Princeton include: Anne Kraepiel, an associate research scholar in the Department of Chemistry; Nina Wurzburger, a research associate in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; and Jean Philippe Bellenger, an associate research scholar in the Princeton Environmental Institute. S. Joseph Wright, who earned his bachelor's degree in biology from Princeton in 1974 and now is a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute in Panama, is also a contributing author.

Molybdenum, a lustrous, silvery metal, is found in soil, rock and sea water and in a range of enzymes vital to human health. Traces of the element have been found in Japanese swords dating back to the 14th century. In modern times, its high strength, good electrical conductivity and anticorrosive properties have made molybdenum desirable as an element of rocket engines, radiation shields, light bulb filaments and circuit boards.

The research was conducted with support from the National Science Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Smithsonian Scholarly Studies program, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute student fellowship program and the Environmental Protection Agency student fellowship program.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Princeton University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Princeton University. "Secret Ingredient For The Health Of Tropical Rainforests Discovered." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 December 2008. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081209125830.htm>.
Princeton University. (2008, December 10). Secret Ingredient For The Health Of Tropical Rainforests Discovered. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 16, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081209125830.htm
Princeton University. "Secret Ingredient For The Health Of Tropical Rainforests Discovered." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/12/081209125830.htm (accessed September 16, 2014).

Share This



More Plants & Animals News

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Some Tobacco Farmers Thrive Amid Challenges

Some Tobacco Farmers Thrive Amid Challenges

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) The South's tobacco country is surviving, and even thriving in some cases, as demand overseas keeps growers in the fields of one of America's oldest cash crops. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Scientists Given Rare Glimpse of 350-Kilo Colossal Squid

Scientists Given Rare Glimpse of 350-Kilo Colossal Squid

AFP (Sep. 16, 2014) Scientists say a female colossal squid weighing an estimated 350 kilograms (770 lbs) and thought to be only the second intact specimen ever found was carrying eggs when discovered in the Antarctic. Duration: 00:47 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Raw: Scientists Examine Colossal Squid

Raw: Scientists Examine Colossal Squid

AP (Sep. 16, 2014) Squid experts in New Zealand thawed and examined an unusual catch on Tuesday: a colossal squid. It was captured in Antarctica's remote Ross Sea in December last year and has been frozen for eight months. (Sept. 16) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ivorians Abandon Monkey Pets in Fear Over Ebola Virus

Ivorians Abandon Monkey Pets in Fear Over Ebola Virus

AFP (Sep. 16, 2014) Since the arrival of Ebola in Ivory Coast, Ivorians have been abandoning their pets, particularly monkeys, in the fear that they may transmit the virus. Duration: 00:47 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

    Environment News

      Technology News



      Save/Print:
      Share:

      Free Subscriptions


      Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

      Get Social & Mobile


      Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

      Have Feedback?


      Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
      Mobile: iPhone Android Web
      Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
      Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
      Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins