Biogeochemical Cycles


Many of the chemical elements are constantly taken up, excreted and/or transformed by living organisms. This is true for those elements that constitute a significant part of the biomass on Earth (carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorus) as well as for many other elements present in small amounts in living cells, such as iron and other metals. The biogeochemical cycles qualitatively and quantitatively describe the cycling of the elements between the abiotic terrestrial, marine and atmospheric environment and the biota. Many processes in the biogeochemical cycles involve reactions that change the oxidation state of the elements involved. Example of redox processes that have a major impact on the global cycles of matter are autotrophic nitrification, denitrification, methanogenesis and dissimilatory sulfate reduction. Human activities have an ever‐increasing impact on the global biochemical cycles, the full extent of which is still poorly understood.

Key Concepts

  • Life on our planet can be sustained thanks to the global biogeochemical cycles in which essential resources are recycled.
  • Each biogeochemical cycle can be defined based on reservoirs of the amounts of material involved, fluxes that quantify the rates of flow of substances between reservoirs and turnover times of the materials transferred.
  • The major biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur involve redox processes in which the oxidation state of the element is modified.
  • Minor elements such as iron, manganese, arsenic, selenium and mercury also undergo biologically mediated transformations that change their redox state.
  • A quantitatively major part of the biogeochemical cycles is driven by dissimilatory processes in which reduced compounds serve as energy sources and/or oxidized compounds serve as electron sinks for the generation of energy.
  • Some of the major processes that drive global biogeochemical cycles, such as the anaerobic oxidation of methane with sulfate or oxidized nitrogen compounds as the electron acceptor and the anammox process in which ammonium ions are oxidized to nitrogen gas with nitrite as the electron acceptor, were elucidated only recently.
  • The global biogeochemical cycles are not necessarily in steady state equilibrium, as shown by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leading to global warming.

Keywords: biogeochemistry; element cycles; primary production; degradation; dissimilatory processes

Figure 1. A simple box model of part of the global carbon cycle, showing reservoirs of carbon in the terrestrial biosphere, the oceans and the atmosphere (in petagram (Pg, 1015 g) marked in red, and fluxes (in Pg carbon per year) in green. Adapted from Holmén ().
Figure 2. The most important reservoirs and fluxes in the global carbon cycle. Reservoirs (in Pg) are marked in red; fluxes (in Pg carbon per year) in green. Adapted from Holmén ().
Figure 3. The main reservoirs and fluxes in the global nitrogen cycle. Reservoirs (in Pg) are marked in red; fluxes (in Pg nitrogen per year) in green. Adapted from Jaffe ().


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Further Reading

Butcher SS, Charlson RJ, Orians GH, et al. (eds) (1992) Global Biogeochemical Cycles. Academic Press: London.

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Madsen EL (2015) Environmental Microbiology: From Genomes to Biogeochemistry. Wiley‐Blackwell: Hoboken.

Schlesinger WH and Bernhardt ES (2013) Biogeochemistry: An Analysis of Global Change, 3rd edn. Elsevier – Academic Press: Amsterdam.

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Oren, Aharon(Jun 2020) Biogeochemical Cycles. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0000343.pub3]