Scientists discover secret of rainforests survival

December 10th, 2008 - 3:21 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, Dec 10 (IANS) A rare trace element that helps rainforests trap nitrogen to support their prodigious growth could be the secret of their survival. Most of the nitrogen that supports the rapid, lush growth of rainforests vital to our eco-system comes from tiny bacteria that can turn nitrogen in the air into soil fertiliser.

Until now, scientists had thought that phosphorus was the key element supporting the vast expansion of rainforests, according to Lars Hedin, professor of ecology 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 at the Princeton Environmental Institute. “It’s not what we were expecting.”

Molybdenum, the team found, is essential for controlling the biological conversion of nitrogen in the atmosphere into natural soil nitrogen fertiliser, which in turn spurs plant growth.

Molybdenum is 10,000 times less abundant than phosphorus and other major nutrients in these ecosystems. A lustrous, silvery metal, it is found in soil, rock and sea water and in a range of enzymes vital to human health.

“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.

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, said a Princeton release.

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, co-author of the paper, who was a graduate student in Hedin’s lab and earned his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton in 2007 and who now is working on climate legislation in Congress.

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

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