Cell biology and molecular basis of denitrification

Microbiol Mol Biol Rev. 1997 Dec;61(4):533-616. doi: 10.1128/mmbr.61.4.533-616.1997.


Denitrification is a distinct means of energy conservation, making use of N oxides as terminal electron acceptors for cellular bioenergetics under anaerobic, microaerophilic, and occasionally aerobic conditions. The process is an essential branch of the global N cycle, reversing dinitrogen fixation, and is associated with chemolithotrophic, phototrophic, diazotrophic, or organotrophic metabolism but generally not with obligately anaerobic life. Discovered more than a century ago and believed to be exclusively a bacterial trait, denitrification has now been found in halophilic and hyperthermophilic archaea and in the mitochondria of fungi, raising evolutionarily intriguing vistas. Important advances in the biochemical characterization of denitrification and the underlying genetics have been achieved with Pseudomonas stutzeri, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Paracoccus denitrificans, Ralstonia eutropha, and Rhodobacter sphaeroides. Pseudomonads represent one of the largest assemblies of the denitrifying bacteria within a single genus, favoring their use as model organisms. Around 50 genes are required within a single bacterium to encode the core structures of the denitrification apparatus. Much of the denitrification process of gram-negative bacteria has been found confined to the periplasm, whereas the topology and enzymology of the gram-positive bacteria are less well established. The activation and enzymatic transformation of N oxides is based on the redox chemistry of Fe, Cu, and Mo. Biochemical breakthroughs have included the X-ray structures of the two types of respiratory nitrite reductases and the isolation of the novel enzymes nitric oxide reductase and nitrous oxide reductase, as well as their structural characterization by indirect spectroscopic means. This revealed unexpected relationships among denitrification enzymes and respiratory oxygen reductases. Denitrification is intimately related to fundamental cellular processes that include primary and secondary transport, protein translocation, cytochrome c biogenesis, anaerobic gene regulation, metalloprotein assembly, and the biosynthesis of the cofactors molybdopterin and heme D1. An important class of regulators for the anaerobic expression of the denitrification apparatus are transcription factors of the greater FNR family. Nitrate and nitric oxide, in addition to being respiratory substrates, have been identified as signaling molecules for the induction of distinct N oxide-metabolizing enzymes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / metabolism*
  • Fungi / genetics
  • Fungi / metabolism*
  • Gene Expression
  • Genes, Bacterial
  • Genes, Fungal
  • Heme / metabolism
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Multigene Family
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism
  • Nitrites / metabolism
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Nitrous Oxide / metabolism
  • Phylogeny


  • Nitrites
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Heme
  • Nitrous Oxide
  • Nitrogen