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Research article2023Peer reviewedOpen access

Nitrogen retention in stream biofilms - A potential contribution to the self-cleaning capacity

Loeffler, Thomas; Bollinger, Eric; Feckler, Alexander; Stehle, Sebastian; Zubrod, Jochen P.; Schulz, Ralf; Bundschuh, Mirco


Surface waters are under increasing pressure due to human activities, such as nutrient emissions from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). Using the retention of nitrogen (N) released from WWTPs as a proxy, we assessed the contribution of biofilms grown on inorganic and organic substrates to the self-cleaning capacity of second-order streams within the biosphere reserve Vosges du Nord/Palatinate forest (France/Germany). The uptake of N from anthropogenic sources, which is enriched with the heavy isotope N-15, into biofilms was assessed up- and downstream of WWTPs after five weeks of substrate deployment. Biofilms at downstream sites showed a significant positive linear relationship between delta N-15 and the relative contribution of wastewater to the streams' discharge. Furthermore, delta N-15 substantially increased in areas affected by WWTP effluent (similar to 8.5 parts per thousand and similar to 7 parts per thousand for inorganic and organic substrate-associated biofilms, respectively) and afterwards declined with increasing distance to the WWTP effluent, approaching levels of upstream sections. The present study highlights that biofilms contribute to nutrient retention and likely the self-cleaning capacity of streams. This function seems, however, to be limited by the fact that biofilms are restricted in their capacity to process excessive N loads with large differences between individual reaches (e.g., delta N-15: -3.25 to 12.81 parts per thousand), influenced by surrounding conditions (e.g., land use) and modulated through climatic factors and thus impacted by climate change. Consequently, the impact of WWTPs located close to the source of a stream are dampened by the biofilms' capacity to retain N only to a minor share and suggest substantial N loads being transported downstream.


Wastewater pollution; Land use; Biofilm; delta N-15; Stable isotope analyses

Published in

Journal of Environmental Management
2023, Volume: 345, article number: 118746

    UKÄ Subject classification

    Environmental Sciences

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