Beyond carbon and nitrogen: How the microbial energy economy couples elemental cycles in diverse ecosystems

Amy J. Burgin, Wendy H. Yang, Stephen K. Hamilton, Whendee L. Silver

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Microbial metabolism couples elemental reactions, driving biogeochemical cycles. Assimilatory coupling of elemental cycles, such as the carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus cycles, occurs when these elements are incorporated into biomass or released through its decomposition. In addition, many microbes are capable of dissimilatory coupling, catalyzing energy-releasing reactions linked to transformations in the oxidation state of elements, and releasing the transformed elements to the environment. Different inorganic elements provide varying amounts of energy yield, and the interaction of these processes creates a microbial energy economy. Dissimilatory reactions involving C, N, iron, and sulfur provide particularly important examples where microbially mediated oxidation-reduction (redox) transformations affect nutrient availability for net primary production, greenhouse-gas emissions, levels of contaminants and natural toxic factors, and other ecosystem dynamics. Recent discoveries of previously unrecognized microbial dissimilatory processes are leading to reevaluation of traditional perceptions of biogeochemical cycles.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)44-52
Number of pages9
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and the Environment
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2011
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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