Sediment microbial enzyme activity as an indicator of nutrient limitation in the great rivers of the Upper Mississippi River basin

Brian H. Hill, Colleen M. Elonen, Terri M. Jicha, David W. Bolgrien, Mary F. Moffett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


We compared extracellular enzyme activity (EEA) of microbial assemblages in river sediments at 447 sites along the Upper Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers with sediment and water chemistry, atmospheric deposition of nitrogen and sulfate, and catchment land uses. The sites represented five unique river reaches-impounded and unimpounded reaches of the Upper Mississippi River, the upper and lower reaches of the Missouri River, and the entire Ohio River. Land use and river chemistry varied significantly between rivers and reaches. There was more agriculture in the two Upper Mississippi River reaches, and this was reflected in higher nutrient concentrations at sites in these reaches. EEA was highest in the two Upper Mississippi River reaches, followed by the lower Missouri River reach. EEA was generally lowest in the upper Missouri River reach. Canonical correlation analysis revealed a strong correlation between EEA and the suite of water and sediment chemistry variables, and the percent of the catchment in anthropogenically dominated land uses, including agriculture and urban development. Nutrient ratios of the waters and sediments suggested carbon (C), nitrogen (N), or phosphorus (P) limitation at a large number of sites in each reach. C-limitation was most pronounced in the unimpounded Mississippi River and lower Missouri River reaches; N-limitation was prevalent in the two Missouri River reaches; and P-limitation dominated the Ohio River. Linking microbial enzyme activities to regional-scale anthropogenic stressors in these large river ecosystems suggests that microbial enzyme regulation of carbon and nutrient dynamics may be sensitive indicators of anthropogenic nutrient and carbon loading.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)195-209
Number of pages15
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Microbial enzymes
  • Nutrients
  • Stoichiometry
  • Upper Mississippi River basin


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