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  1. ABSTRACT Biological nitrogen fixation is catalyzed by the enzyme nitrogenase. Two forms of this metalloenzyme, the vanadium (V)- and iron (Fe)-only nitrogenases, were recently found to reduce small amounts of carbon dioxide (CO 2 ) into the potent greenhouse gas methane (CH 4 ). Here, we report carbon ( 13 C/ 12 C) and hydrogen ( 2 H/ 1 H) stable isotopic compositions and fractionations of methane generated by V- and Fe-only nitrogenases in the metabolically versatile nitrogen fixer Rhodopseudomonas palustris . The stable carbon isotope fractionation imparted by both forms of alternative nitrogenase are within the range observed formore »hydrogenotrophic methanogenesis ( 13 α CO2/CH4 = 1.051 ± 0.002 for V-nitrogenase and 1.055 ± 0.001 for Fe-only nitrogenase; values are means ± standard errors). In contrast, the hydrogen isotope fractionations ( 2 α H2O/CH4 = 2.071 ± 0.014 for V-nitrogenase and 2.078 ± 0.018 for Fe-only nitrogenase) are the largest of any known biogenic or geogenic pathway. The large 2 α H2O/CH4 shows that the reaction pathway nitrogenases use to form methane strongly discriminates against 2 H, and that 2 α H2O/CH4 distinguishes nitrogenase-derived methane from all other known biotic and abiotic sources. These findings on nitrogenase-derived methane will help constrain carbon and nitrogen flows in microbial communities and the role of the alternative nitrogenases in global biogeochemical cycles. IMPORTANCE All forms of life require nitrogen for growth. Many different kinds of microbes living in diverse environments make inert nitrogen gas from the atmosphere bioavailable using a special enzyme, nitrogenase. Nitrogenase has a wide substrate range, and, in addition to producing bioavailable nitrogen, some forms of nitrogenase also produce small amounts of the greenhouse gas methane. This is different from other microbes that produce methane to generate energy. Until now, there was no good way to determine when microbes with nitrogenases are making methane in nature. Here, we present an isotopic fingerprint that allows scientists to distinguish methane from microbes making it for energy versus those making it as a by-product of nitrogen acquisition. With this new fingerprint, it will be possible to improve our understanding of the relationship between methane production and nitrogen acquisition in nature.« less
  2. Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) by microorganisms associated with cryptogamic covers, such as cyanolichens and bryophytes, is a primary source of fixed nitrogen in pristine, high-latitude ecosystems. On land, low molybdenum (Mo) availability has been shown to limit BNF by the most common form of nitrogenase (Nase), which requires Mo in its active site. Vanadium (V) and iron-only Nases have been suggested as viable alternatives to countering Mo limitation of BNF; however, field data supporting this long-standing hypothesis have been lacking. Here, we elucidate the contribution of vanadium nitrogenase (V-Nase) to BNF by cyanolichens across a 600-km latitudinal transect in easternmore »boreal forests of North America. Widespread V-Nase activity was detected (∼15–50% of total BNF rates), with most of the activity found in the northern part of the transect. We observed a 3-fold increase of V-Nase contribution during the 20-wk growing season. By including the contribution of V-Nase to BNF, estimates of new N input by cyanolichens increase by up to 30%. We find that variability in V-based BNF is strongly related to Mo availability, and we identify a Mo threshold of ∼250 ng·g lichen −1 for the onset of V-based BNF. Our results provide compelling ecosystem-scale evidence for the use of the V-Nase as a surrogate enzyme that contributes to BNF when Mo is limiting. Given widespread findings of terrestrial Mo limitation, including the carbon-rich circumboreal belt where global change is most rapid, additional consideration of V-based BNF is required in experimental and modeling studies of terrestrial biogeochemistry.« less