Project Description

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Europe has allocated large resources to research on anthropogenic global warming, with an emphasis on CO2, while less attention has been paid to the other greenhouse gases. The 300-fold stronger specific global warming effect of N2O compared to that of CO2 implies that the performance of ecosystems as reactors in the climate system is strongly influenced by their N2O emission.

Nitrous Oxide Research Alliance Training Network (NORA)

The fate of anthropogenic nitrogen is at the core of our environmental predicament. Human activities have more than doubled the annual input of reactive nitrogen to the biosphere compared to prehistoric levels, causing escalating emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) which contributes to global warming and depletion of stratospheric ozone. Ultimately, anthropogenic nitrogen will return to the atmosphere, either as N2, N2O or NO, which are the gaseous products of microbial red/ox-transformations of mineral nitrogen.

Thus Crutzen et al 2008 [Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 8: 389-395] claimed that the potential global cooling effect of biofuel production (substituting fossil C) was negated by N2O emissions if the entire life cycle of fertilizer N was included. Similarly, Li et al 2005 [Climatic Change 72:321-338] claim that C-sequestration in arable soils is likely to increase N2O emissions, offsetting the beneficial effect of C-sequestration on climate radiative forcing. We acknowledge that these conclusions are controversial, but cite them to illustrate the potential importance of N2O when designing policies to reduce global warming by manipulation of ecosystem biogeochemistry. The ultimate fate of anthropogenic nitrogen is its return to the atmosphere, either as N2, N2O or NO, which are the gaseous products of microbial red/ox-transformations of mineral nitrogen. The N-gas product stoichiometry of these processes is controlled by the ecology and regulatory biology of the organisms involved, as modulated by environmental factors. A better understanding and quantification of these processes is urgently needed to improve our chances of tackling the accumulating global nitrogen issue [Schlesinger (2009) PNAS 106:203-208].

Bridging for progress: 

The invention of strategies to reduce emissions of N2O through traditional agronomic/ecosystem N2O emission research has not been successful. The approaches have been largely empirical (flux measurements), and the community involved in this research has been unable to benefit from progress made in basic research on the regulatory biology and ecophysiology of the microbes involved in N2O production. This is partly because the conceptual and mathematical models used in ecosystem research are too crude to assimilate such knowledge, but also because of lack of exposure to the relevant basic research.

Advances in research into the physiology of N2O production have been paralleled by enormous progress in exploration of the ecology of the responsible microorganisms, through the application of molecular techniques. Analysis of community DNA and the kinetics of functional gene expression are breaking long-standing barriers to understanding and predicting microbial processes, and have the potential to transform microbial ecology from its present descriptive approach to quantitative and predictive science. However, much of current research involves accumulation of descriptive data, without stringent questions and hypotheses.

Basic research on the biochemistry and regulatory biology of microbial nitrogen transformations has made ground-breaking progress in unraveling functional enzymes, regulatory networks. This knowledge is fertile ground for computational biological approaches to understand phenotype-genotype relationships, enabling cross fertilization between biochemistry/regulatory biology and microbial ecology. The current network is based on a common understanding that we need to intensify exposure to, and direct interactions between, traditional disciplines to make progress in nitrogen cycle research. We are convinced that computational biology will emerge as a useful common approach, transforming interdisciplinary science from a masochistic exercise to an operational pleasure.  Nitrogen cycle research, and exploitation of research findings, are severely limited by the lack of adequately trained researchers in computational biology and the ability of biologists, ecologists and biogeochemists to interact with such researchers. The NORA network training program will advance this much needed field by special training of two of the ESRs in computational biology and through schools and workshops at which the ESRs, and ERs when they participate, will interact closely, increasing their awareness of cross-disciplinary opportunities and ensuring collaborative research. 

Private sector opportunities  

Industrial processes have become increasingly important in the human nitrogen cycle, along with the development of agronomic technologies and urbanization of society. Nitrogen environmental issues are traditionally seen as economic externalities to industry and agriculture, but the development of technologies to tackle these issues is increasingly considered as a new and fertile area for establishment of viable industries: 

  • Technology for handling nitrogen issues has given rise to new private enterprises (consultancy and wastewater technology innovation).
  • Technology for precision farming is a promising area for industrial R&D
  • The market for instrumentation of environmental monitoring and analysis is large and expanding as novel approaches are developed. Robotization of such instrumentation is a new and promising area.
  • Life cycle analysis (LCA) has become an industrial standard, used to explore options to improve the environmental profiles of single products and whole companies.

In summary: industrial R&D is increasingly directed to nitrogen cycle issues, and there is considerable and increasing potential for collaboration between industry and academic research in this area. At present, however, there is a lack of appropriately trained researchers to realize this potential.

NORA draws on expertise and R&D commitments within the fertilizer (Yara) and environmental and wastewater industries (Bioclear, Paques) to develop long-term and sustainable N2O research in collaboration with academia and other industries with complementary competence (Adigo for robotization of field fluxes, NCIMB for preservation and distribution of key strains). The planned NORA network has already received great interest from a number of stakeholders from both the public and private sectors in several European countries, demonstrated in letters of support (attachments) and commitment to participate in conferences/workshops arranged within the framework of the network. 


The Coordinator 
Åsa Frostegård is professor in microbial ecology at Dept Chemistry, Biotechnology and Food Science at UMB (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) where she leads the Environmental Microbiology group. She is responsible for financial management and contact with the EU commission (REA), and leads the project through WP4 and the supervisory board. 

Supervisory board (SB) 
The SB is composed of the coordinator plus one representative from each full network and associated partner. The SB holds the overarching responsibility that the PhD students in the network obtain the best possible training, and that synergistic effects are achieved through collaboration activities and secondments between partners.

Technical committee (TC) 
TC consists of all WP leaders; Rob van Spanning (WP1), Jim Prosser (WP2), Lars Bakken (WP3), Mark van Loosdrecht (WP5), David Richardson (WP6) and Åsa Frostegård, (coordinator and leader of WP 0 and 4). The TC makes lower level decisions and management of the network.

Recruitment (WP0) 
All main supervisors (representing all Full Partners) will form a Recruitment Committee  (subcommittee under SB)  and will have a first meeting in connection with the general “start-up” meeting (PM 1). The recruitment committee is responsible for WP0 (“Recruitment”). This includes organizing the recruitment of 9 ESR and 3 ER within nine months. Furthermore, the committee will ensure that the recruitment procedure is in line with the principles set out in the European Charter for Researchers

Training (WP5, leader: Mark van Loosdrecht, TUD)
A training committee will be appointed by SB to handle specific tasks associated with training Progress reports will be written twice a year by each ESR (and his/her supervisor team) and submitted to the training committee, which will review the report and report to the SB.

Dissemination and Outreach (WP6, leader: David Richardson, UEA) 
The WP6 is responsible for external contact and visibility of the project by initiating press releases and secure participation on relevant events (conferences, etc.); contribute to editorial work on the home page of NORA, and encourage and train students in writing populist articles. 

Published 20. December 2012 - 10:19 - Updated 31. October 2016 - 16:46