Nitrous oxide production by ammonia oxidisers: Physiological diversity, niche differentiation and potential mitigation strategies

James I Prosser* (Corresponding Author), Linda Hink, Cécile Gubry-Rangin, Graeme W. Nicol

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

13 Citations (Scopus)


Oxidation of ammonia to nitrite by bacteria and archaea is responsible for global emissions of nitrous oxide directly and indirectly through provision of nitrite and, after further oxidation, nitrate to denitrifiers. Their contributions to increasing N2 O emissions are greatest in terrestrial environments, due to the dramatic and continuing increases in use of ammonia-based fertilisers, which have been driven by requirement for increased food production, but which also provide a source of energy for ammonia oxidisers, leading to an imbalance in the terrestrial nitrogen cycle. Direct N2 O production by ammonia oxidisers results from several metabolic processes, sometimes combined with abiotic reactions. Physiological characteristics, including mechanisms for N2 O production, vary within and between ammonia oxidising archaea (AOA) and bacteria (AOB) and comammox bacteria and N2 O yield of AOB is higher than in the last two groups. There is also strong evidence for niche differentiation between AOA and AOB with respect to environmental conditions in natural and engineered environments. In particular, AOA are favoured by low soil pH and AOA and AOB are respectively favoured by low rates of ammonium supply, equivalent to application of slow-release fertiliser, or high rates of supply, equivalent to addition of high concentrations of inorganic ammonium or urea. These differences between AOA and AOB provide the potential for better fertilisation strategies that could both increase fertiliser use efficiency and reduce N2 O emissions from agricultural soils. This article reviews research on the biochemistry, physiology and ecology of ammonia oxidisers and discusses the consequences for ammonia oxidiser communities subjected to different agricultural practices and the ways in which this knowledge, coupled with improved methods for characterising communities, might lead to improved fertiliser use efficiency and mitigation of N2 O emissions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)103-118
Number of pages16
JournalGlobal Change Biology
Issue number1
Early online date29 Nov 2019
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2020


  • archaeal ammonia oxidisers
  • bacterial ammonia oxidisers
  • nitrification, nitrous oxide emissions
  • soil
  • marine
  • agriculture

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