Research ArticleEARTH SCIENCES

Effects of silver nanoparticles on nitrification and associated nitrous oxide production in aquatic environments

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Science Advances  02 Aug 2017:
Vol. 3, no. 8, e1603229
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1603229

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Silver nanoparticles (AgNPs) are the most common materials in nanotechnology-based consumer products globally. Because of the wide application of AgNPs, their potential environmental impact is currently a highly topical focus of concern. Nitrification is one of the processes in the nitrogen cycle most susceptible to AgNPs but the specific effects of AgNPs on nitrification in aquatic environments are not well understood. We report the influence of AgNPs on nitrification and associated nitrous oxide (N2O) production in estuarine sediments. AgNPs inhibited nitrification rates, which decreased exponentially with increasing AgNP concentrations. The response of nitrifier N2O production to AgNPs exhibited low-dose stimulation (<534, 1476, and 2473 μg liter−1 for 10-, 30-, and 100-nm AgNPs, respectively) and high-dose inhibition (hormesis effect). Compared with controls, N2O production could be enhanced by >100% at low doses of AgNPs. This result was confirmed by metatranscriptome studies showing up-regulation of nitric oxide reductase (norQ) gene expression in the low-dose treatment. Isotopomer analysis revealed that hydroxylamine oxidation was the main N2O production pathway, and its contribution to N2O emission was enhanced when exposed to low-dose AgNPs. This study highlights the molecular underpinnings of the effects of AgNPs on nitrification activity and demonstrates that the release of AgNPs into the environment should be controlled because they interfere with nitrifying communities and stimulate N2O emission.

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