Agricultural practices linked to shifts in groundwater microbial structure and denitrifying bacteria

K. L. Korbel*, P. Greenfield, G. C. Hose

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    21 Citations (Scopus)


    Irrigation enhances the connectivity between the surface and groundwater by facilitating the transport of energy sources and oxygen. When combined with fertilisers, the impact on groundwater microbial communities and their interactions with nitrogen cycling in aquifers is poorly understood. This study examines the impact of different landuses (irrigated and non-irrigated) on groundwater microbial communities. A total of 38 wells accessing shallow aquifers in three sub-catchments of the Murray Darling Basin, Australia, were sampled for water chemistry and microbial community structure using environmental DNA (eDNA) techniques. All sub-catchments showed evidence of intense irrigation and groundwater contamination with total nitrogen, nitrates and phosphorus concentrations often well above background, with total nitrogen concentrations up to 70 mg/L and nitrate concentration up to 18 mg/L. Across sub-catchments there was high microbial diversity, with differences in community structure and function between catchments and landuses. Of the 1100 operational taxonomic units (OTUs) recorded, 47 OTUs were common across catchments with species from Woesearchaeota, Nitrospirales, Nitrosopumilales and Acidobacter taxonomic groups contributing greatly to groundwater microbial communities. Within non-irrigated sites, groundwaters contained similar proportions of nitrifying and denitrifying capable taxa, whereas irrigated sites had significantly higher abundances of microbes with nitrifying rather than denitrifying capabilities. Microbial diversity was lower in irrigated sites in the Macquarie catchment. These results indicate that irrigated landuses impact microbial community structure and diversity within groundwaters and suggest that the ratios of denitrifying to nitrifying capable microbes as well as specific orders (e.g., Nitrososphaerales) may be useful to indicate long-term nitrogen contamination of groundwaters. Such research is important for understanding the biogeochemical processes that are key predictors of redox state and contamination of groundwater by N species and other compounds. This will help to predict human impacts on groundwater microbial structure, diversity, and ecosystem functions, aiding the long-term management groundwater resources.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number150870
    Pages (from-to)1-14
    Number of pages14
    JournalScience of the Total Environment
    Issue numberPart 2
    Early online date8 Oct 2021
    Publication statusPublished - 10 Feb 2022


    • Groundwater
    • Bacteria
    • Archaea
    • Agriculture
    • Nitrogen
    • Irrigation


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