Earth’s life support systems discussed in an open-access special issue

Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment issue examines the basic elements of life

In the search for life on Mars or any planet, there is much more than the presence of carbon and oxygen to consider. Using Earth’s biogeochemical cycles as a reference point, elements like nitrogen, iron and sulfur are just as important for supporting life. As explored in studies published in February’s open-access Special Issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the most basic elements work together to support an extraordinary diversity of life.

Cycles of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous are intertwined and rely on organisms just as much as organisms rely on these elements, explains Edward Rastetter from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in one of the issue’s articles. For instance, fallen leaves on a forest floor supply food for microbes which excrete nutrients back into the soil, benefitting nearby trees.

Microbes transform raw materials — such as chemicals, gases and sunlight — into biomass by a variety of metabolic processes. These energy-converting processes are as diverse as the microbes that conduct them, and are much more diverse than the metabolic capabilities of plants or animals, according to Amy Burgin from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and colleagues in one of the issue’s articles.

Burgin and her team study rock-eating microbes, officially called chemolithotrophic microbes, and their roles in the ecosystems they inhabit.  A well-known example habitat is the extreme environment of deep-sea hydrothermal vents, wherein these microbes metabolize dissolved minerals into organic forms of carbon that support complex food webs of tube worms, mussels and clams. These microbes and food webs have adapted to life without photosynthesis.

“While hydrothermal vents are an especially extreme environment where chemolithotrophic organisms play a particularly important and conspicuous role, they are also found in most aquatic environments, often at boundaries along oxygen-depleted zones of sediments or groundwater,” says Burgin. “Their metabolic processes provide insight into the life forms that existed before Earth had an oxidized atmosphere. There were biogeochemical cycles, but they were driven by microbes that lived in the absence of oxygen, and these most ancient life forms persist today. Their activity helps drive biogeochemical cycling in today’s world too.”

In Frontiers’ Life Lines column, Adrian Burton ponders a biogeochemical riddle of Mars where nitrogen is a major missing element. However, Mars may have once had much more nitrogen before losing it to space. “The interconnectedness of biogeochemical cycles is essential for life as we know it on Earth and would be for any life on Mars,” says Burton. “But did any ancient Martian life that may have arisen get the time it needed to adapt to the Red Planet’s changing environmental conditions, including disappearing nitrogen? Wouldn’t it be nice to know!”

Contents of the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment Special Issue: Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles

Introduction to coupled biogeochemical cycles (WH Schlesinger, JJ Cole, AC Finzi, and EA Holland)

Multi-element regulation of the tropical forest carbon cycle (AR Townsend, CC Cleveland, BZ Houlton, CB Alden, and JWC White)

Coupled biogeochemical cycles: eutrophication and hypoxia in temperate estuaries and coastal marine ecosystems (R Howarth, F Chan, DJ Conley, J Garnier, SC Doney, R Marino, and G Billen)

Coupling biogeochemical cycles in urban environments: ecosystem services, green solutions, and misconceptions (DE Pataki, MM Carreiro, J Cherrier, NE Grulke, V Jennings, S Pincetl, RV Pouyat, TH Whitlow, and WC Zipperer)

Improving biogeochemical knowledge through technological innovation (JM Melack, AC Finzi, D Siegel, S MacIntyre, CE Nelson, AK Aufdenkampe, and ML Pace)

Beyond carbon and nitrogen: how the microbial energy economy couples elemental cycles in diverse ecosystems (AJ Burgin, WH Yang, SK Hamilton, and WL Silver)

Riverine coupling of biogeochemical cycles between land, oceans, and atmosphere (AK Aufdenkampe, E Mayorga, PA Raymond, JM Melack, SC Doney, SR Alin, RE Aalto, and K Yoo)

Responses and feedbacks of coupled biogeochemical cycles to climate change: examples from terrestrial ecosystems (AC Finzi, AT Austin, EE Cleland, SD Frey, BZ Houlton, and MD Wallenstein)

Modeling coupled biogeochemical cycles (EB Rastetter)

Research frontiers in the analysis of coupled biogeochemical cycles (AC Finzi, JJ Cole, SC Doney, EA Holland, and RB Jackson)

Also, Coupled biogeochemical cycles and Earth stewardship (FS Chapin III, ME Power, and JJ Cole) andIt’s life, Martinus, but not as we know it (A Burton).

The Special Issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles is open access and available at To subscribe to ESA press releases, access all of the Society’s journals or reach experts in ecological science, contact Katie Kline, ESA Communications Officer, at gro.asenull@eitak or 202-833-8773 x211.