Panama: Green’s growing is now all of sudden about Molybdenum

Molybdenum is 10,000 times less abundant than phosphorus and other major nutrients in forest ecosystems. The element feeds nitrogenase, the biological enzyme that converts atmospheric nitrogen into soil fertilizer, according to the researchers.  “Nitrogenase without molybdenum is like a car engine without spark plugs,” said Alexander Barron, the lead author on the paper, who was a graduate student in Hedin’s laboratory and is now is working on climate legislation in Congress.

The authors say the finding may have implications for climate policy — molybdenum may limit the amount of carbon tropical rainforests can absorb. Conducting experiments in forest plots in Panama, Alexander Barron and colleagues found that tropical rainforest rely on molybdenum to capture the nitrogen from soils. It was previously believed that phosphorus was the key to rainforests’ productive growth. “We were surprised,” said Lars Hedin, a biologist from Princeton University who led the research. “Just like trace amounts of vitamins are essential for human health, this exceedingly rare trace metal is indispensable for the vital function of tropical rainforests in the larger Earth system.”

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