High heavy metal load does not inhibit nitrogen fixation in moss-cyanobacteria associations

  • Hasna Akther
  • Kathrin RouskEmail author


Nitrogen (N2) fixation by moss-associated cyanobacteria is one of the main sources of new N input in pristine ecosystems such as boreal forests and arctic tundra. Given the non-vascular physiology of mosses, they are especially sensitive to e.g. increased N input and heavy metal deposition. While the effects of increased N input on moss-associated N2 fixation has been comprehensively assessed, hardly any reports exist on the effects of increased heavy metal load on this key ecosystem function. To address this knowledge gap, we made use of an extreme metal pollution gradient in boreal forests of Northern Sweden originating from a metal mine and its associated smelters. We collected the common moss Pleurozium schreberi, known to host cyanobacteria, along a distance gradient away from the metal source of pollution and measured moss-metal content (Fe, Cu, Zn, Pb) as well as N2 fixation. We found a strong distance gradient in moss-metal content for all investigated metals: a sharp decline in metal content with distance away from the metal pollution source. However, we found a similarly steep gradient in moss-associated N2 fixation, with highest activity closest to the metal source of pollution. Hence, while mosses may be sensitive to increased heavy metal inputs, the activity of colonising cyanobacteria seem to be unaffected by heavy metals, and consequently, ecosystem function may not be compromised by elevated metal input.


Bioindicators Cyanobacteria Heavy metal pollution Mosses Nitrogen fixation 



We thank Johannes Rousk for invaluable help with the sample collection. We thank Maja H. Wahlgren for assistance with the ethylene analyses and Gosha Sylvester for assistance with the metal and nutrient analyses. Funding was provided by the Independent Research Fund Denmark (IRFD) “Research Project 1” (Grant ID: DFF—6108-00089) and by the IRFD Sapere Aude Grant (Grant ID: 7027-00011B).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by any of the authors.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biology, Terrestrial Ecology SectionUniversity of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark
  2. 2.Center for Permafrost (CENPERM)University of CopenhagenCopenhagenDenmark

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