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UW Today
November 6, 2013

Floods didn’t make floodplains fertile during the dawn of human agriculture in the Earth’s far north because the waters were virtually devoid of nitrogen, unlike other areas of the globe scientists have studied.

Instead, the hardy Norsemen and early inhabitants of Russia and Canada have microorganisms called cyanobacteria to mostly thank for abundant grasses that attracted game to hunt and then provided fodder once cattle were domesticated. The process is still underway in the region’s pristine floodplains.

The new findings are surprising because it’s long been assumed that nitrogen crucial to plant growth mainly arrived with floods of river water each spring, according to Thomas DeLuca, a University of Washington professor of environmental and forest sciences and lead author of a paper in the Nov. 6, 2013 issue of the journal PLOS ONE.

Discovering that cyanobacteria in the floodplains were responsible for nitrogen fixation – that is taking it from the atmosphere and “fixing” it into a form plants can use – partially resolves the scientific debate of how humans harvested grasses there for hundreds of years without fertilizing, DeLuca said. It raises the question of whether farmers today might reduce fertilizer use by taking advantage of cyanobacteria that occur, not just in the floodplains studied, but in soils around the world, he said.

It also might lead to more accurate models of nitrogen in river systems because none of the prominent models consider nitrogen being fixed in floodplains, DeLuca said. Scientists model nitrogen loading of rivers, especially where industrial fertilizers and effluent from wastewater-treatment plants cause dead zones and other problems in the lower reaches and mouths of rivers.

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