Salt marshes are extraordinarily productive ecosystems found in estuaries worldwide, hosting intensive sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon cycling. Although it has been hypothesized that in this environment sulfur oxidation may be important for energy flow, there is little direct data. At the heart of these hypothesized interactions are sulfur oxidizing microbes. Sulfur oxidizers can catalyze sulfide (re-)oxidation with nitrate as the electron acceptor under anaerobic conditions, producing ammonium (via DNRA) or dinitrogen gas (via denitrification). The form of sulfur present influences whether autotrophic or heterotrophic processes transform nitrate either to dinitrogen gas or ammonium through DNRA. To examine the fate of nitrate and interactions with sulfur, we conducted a series of “push-pull” experiments in marsh sediment at the Plum Island Ecosystems Long-Term Ecological Research site in Massachusetts. Porewater was extracted anoxically and amended with isotopically labeled nitrate (15N). Porewater was pumped back into the sediment and then withdrawn at intervals of several hours. Dissolved inorganic nitrogen, sulfur, and carbon were measured as well as isotopes of nitrogen gas and ammonium. These push-pull experiments were conducted at several times during the growing season, to coincide with salt marsh grass initial growth (May), maximum growth (July), flowering (August), and senescence (October).
Porewater sulfides were very low to non-detectable in May (time of initial plant growth) and increased to a maximum of 3 mM in October (time of plant senescence). Combined rates of denitrification and DNRA also varied seasonally: rates were higher in May (0.16 - 17.5 nmoles N/cm3/hr) and much lower in October (0 – 0.03 nmoles N/cm3/hr). Interestingly, DNRA rates were always higher than denitrification rates, often by an order of magnitude or more.