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Molybdenum Limits Microbes’ Ability to Remove Harmful Nitrate from Soil
Published: October 05, 2018
Posted: August 22, 2021

Mineralization process of precipitation occurs as pH increases during dilution of acidic and contaminated groundwater into the environment.

The Science

The Oak Ridge Reservation (ORR) in Tennessee was created as part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. This legacy left the site uniquely contaminated with acidic, high-nitrate and high-metal substances. Microbes living naturally in this environment can use the metal molybdenum to remove nitrate. However, the small concentration of molybdenum in the ORR limits how much nitrate the microbes can remove. Two studies report on why molybdenum is found in limited concentrations at ORR. The studies also revealed the mechanisms that some nitrate-reducing microbes use to survive in these extreme conditions.

The Impact

Nitrate contamination is a serious concern. Excessive nitrate in groundwater or soil causes both environmental and health problems. Microorganisms need molybdenum to remove nitrate contamination from soils. However, the ORR environment contains very low concentrations of molybdenum. This research explains how iron- and aluminum-containing minerals reduce the available amount of molybdenum from ORR groundwater. The study also found a strain of microbes at ORR that is less sensitive than usual to limited molybdenum. This microbe strain can therefore reduce nitrate at ORR better than other microbes.


Molybdenum availability is crucial for nitrate removal by the denitrification pathway in microorganisms. The soluble from of molybdenum is incorporated into the cell by a protein called Mod transporter. However, when molybdenum occurs at very low concentration as observed in the highly acidic and nitrate-contaminated groundwater at ORR, it inhibits microbial denitrification. These studies demonstrated that molybdenum limitation in ORR groundwater is a result of the incorporation of soluble molybdenum into insoluble iron- and aluminum-containing minerals. This mineralization process, called precipitation, occurs as the pH increases during the dilution of acidic and contaminated groundwater into the environment. These results show that molybdenum depletion by iron and aluminum precipitation can dramatically inhibit nitrate reduction by ORR microorganisms. By analyzing contaminated sediment cores from ORR, researchers found further evidence for direct co-precipitation of molybdenum, iron, and aluminum.

Researchers searched for nitrate-reducing microbes in the molybdenum-limited area of ORR and identified a metal-resistant strain of Bacillus sp. named XG196. This strain was much less sensitive to molybdenum limitation than other microbes from the same site. XG196 can reduce nitrate under low molybdenum concentration because it contained a novel variant of the molybdate-binding protein (ModA), which is part of the Mod transporter. XG196 ModA had a much higher affinity for molybdate than other ModA proteins previously characterized in other microbes. This protein variant not only has the highest molybdenum affinity reported so far, but also is the first ModA to be characterized from a Bacillus strain.

BER Program Manager
Ramana Madupu
U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research
Biological Systems Science Division (SC-33.2)
Foundational Genomics Research, Computational Biosciences, and DOE Joint Genome Institute

Principal Investigator
Michael W. W. Adams
University of Georgia


This research was performed by scientists with the ENIGMA (Ecosystems and Networks Integrated with Genes and Molecular Assemblies) project, a Science Focus Area at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It is based on work supported by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, under contract number DE-AC02-05CH11231.


Ge, X. et al. “Iron-and aluminum-induced depletion of molybdenum in acidic environments impedes the nitrogen cycle.” Environmental microbiology 21(1), 152–163 (2019). [DOI:10.1111/1462-2920.14435]

Ge, X. et al. “Characterization of a metal-resistant Bacillus strain with a high molybdate affinity ModA from contaminated sediments at the Oak Ridge Reservation.” Frontiers in Microbiology 11, 2543 (2020). [DOI:10.3389/fmicb.2020.587127]

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Genomic Analysis and Systems Biology
  • Research Area: Microbes and Communities

Division: SC-33.2 Biological Systems Science Division, BER


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