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BACKGROUND: Global warming and the alteration of the global nitrogen cycle are major anthropogenic threats to the environment. Denitrification, the biological conversion of nitrate to gaseous nitrogen, removes a substantial fraction of the nitrogen from aquatic ecosystems, and can therefore help to reduce eutrophication effects. However, potential responses of denitrification to warming are poorly understood. Although several studies have reported increased denitrification rates with rising temperature, the impact of temperature on denitrification seems to vary widely between systems.
METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: We explored the effects of warming on denitrification rates using microcosm experiments, field measurements and a simple model approach. Our results suggest that a three degree temperature rise will double denitrification rates. By performing experiments at fixed oxygen concentrations as well as with oxygen concentrations varying freely with temperature, we demonstrate that this strong temperature dependence of denitrification can be explained by a systematic decrease of oxygen concentrations with rising temperature. Warming decreases oxygen concentrations due to reduced solubility, and more importantly, because respiration rates rise more steeply with temperature than photosynthesis.
CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Our results show that denitrification rates in aquatic ecosystems are strongly temperature dependent, and that this is amplified by the temperature dependencies of photosynthesis and respiration. Our results illustrate the broader phenomenon that coupling of temperature dependent reactions may in some situations strongly alter overall effects of temperature on ecological processes.