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Bacteria that carry out many processes of the nitrogen cycle inhabit estuarine sediments. Denitrification is known to be a dominant process causing estuarine sediments to behave as net nitrogen sinks. However, measurements of nitrogen fluxes in the sediments of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, USA, have at times revealed high rates of net nitrogen (N2) fixation. Whereas changes in primary production, in magnitude and phenology, within Narragansett Bay have been identified as possible causes for these changes in nitrogen cycling within the benthos, a factor that has not been examined thus far is seasonal hypoxia. Since anaerobic diazotrophs figure so prominently within the sediments of Narragansett Bay, we hypothesized that dissolved oxygen concentrations in the bottom waters affect their activity. In order to explore this relationship, we measured the activity of diazotrophs in the surface sediments of 3 study areas during the summers of 2013 and 2014 using the acetylene reduction assay. We explored the effects of several water quality parameters on nitrogenase activity including, among others, dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll concentrations. Our measurements of nitrogenase activity were generally low, ranging between 2 and 5 nmol ethylene g-1 d-1 but spiked to 16 nmol ethylene g-1 d-1 at an area experiencing severe hypoxia in July 2013. Our data suggest that diazotrophy in estuarine sediments is enhanced when the benthos experiences very low dissolved oxygen in conjunction with recent influxes of autochthonous organic matter. Experiments with sediment core incubations conducted in the laboratory support our hypothesis that low dissolved oxygen and organic matter additions promote N2 fixation.

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