• agricultural streams;
  • benthic organic carbon;
  • denitrification;
  • dissolved organic carbon;
  • high nitrate;
  • nitrogen cycle


1. Anthropogenic activities have increased reactive nitrogen availability, and now many streams carry large nitrate loads to coastal ecosystems. Denitrification is potentially an important nitrogen sink, but few studies have investigated the influence of benthic organic carbon on denitrification in nitrate-rich streams.

2. Using the acetylene-block assay, we measured denitrification rates associated with benthic substrata having different proportions of organic matter in agricultural streams in two states in the mid-west of the U.S.A., Illinois and Michigan.

3. In Illinois, benthic organic matter varied little between seasons (5.9–7.0% of stream sediment), but nitrate concentrations were high in summer (>10 mg N L−1) and low (<0.5 mg N L−1) in autumn. Across all seasons and streams, the rate of denitrification ranged from 0.01 to 4.77 μg N g−1 DM h−1 and was positively related to stream-water nitrate concentration. Within each stream, denitrification was positively related to benthic organic matter only when nitrate concentration exceeded published half-saturation constants.

4. In Michigan, streams had high nitrate concentrations and diverse benthic substrata which varied from 0.7 to 72.7% organic matter. Denitrification rate ranged from 0.12 to 11.06 μg N g−1 DM h−1 and was positively related to the proportion of organic matter in each substratum.

5. Taken together, these results indicate that benthic organic carbon may play an important role in stream nitrogen cycling by stimulating denitrification when nitrate concentrations are high.