Humans have dramatically increased the amount of reactive nitrogen (primarily ammonium, nitrogen oxides, and organically bound N) circulating in the biosphere and atmosphere, creating a wide array of desirable products (e.g., food production) and undesirable consequences (e.g., eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems and air pollution). Only when this reactive N is converted back to the chemically unreactive dinitrogen (N2) form, do these cascading effects of elevated reactive N cease to be of concern. Among the quantitatively most important processes for converting reactive N to N2 gas is the biological process of classical denitrification, in which oxides of nitrogen are used as terminal electron acceptors in anaerobic respiration. This Invited Feature on denitrification includes a series of papers that integrate our current state of knowledge across terrestrial, freshwater, and marine systems on denitrification rates, controlling factors, and methodologies for measuring and modeling denitrification. In this paper, we present an overview of the role of denitrification within the broader N cycle, the environmental and health concerns that have resulted from human alteration of the N cycle, and a brief historical perspective on why denitrification has been so difficult to study.
Despite over a century of research on denitrification and numerous recent technological advances, we still lack a comprehensive, quantitative understanding of denitrification rates and controlling factors across ecosystems. Inherent problems of measuring spatially and temporally heterogeneous N2 production under an N2-rich atmosphere account for much of this slow progress, but lack of interdisciplinary communication of research results and methodological developments has also impeded denitrification research. An integrated multidisciplinary approach to denitrification research, from upland terrestrial ecosystems, to small streams, river systems, estuaries, and continental shelf ecosystems, and to the open ocean, may yield new insights into denitrification across landscapes and waterscapes.