Environmental and nutrient controls of marine nitrogen fixation


• Fe, P and dust additions could stimulate N2 fixation of Trichodesmium.
• Novel nutrient acquisition strategies have been discovered for Trichodesmium.
• Fe could be the ultimate limiting factor for N2 fixation.
• Ocean acidification may be beneficial for N2 fixation of Trichodesmium.
• Ocean warming may not play an important role in N2 fixation of Trichodesmium.


Biological dinitrogen (N2) fixation by diazotrophic cyanobacteria has great biogeochemical implications in nitrogen (N) cycling in the ocean as this process represents the major source of new N input to the oceans, thereby controlling the marine primary productivity. Numerous factors can affect the extent of N2 fixation. A better understanding of the major environmental and nutrient factors governing this process is highly required. Iron (Fe) and/or phosphorus (P) are thought to be limiting factors in most oceanic regions. Special attention has been given in the present study to evaluate the effects of mineral dust deposition which is believed to stimulate N2 fixation as it increases the availability of both Fe and P. Through three laboratory bioassays (+Fe, +P, +Dust) via incubation experiments performed on Trichodesmium IMS101, we found that each addition of Fe, P or desert dust could stimulate the growth and N2 fixation of Trichodesmium IMS101. Several adaptive nutrient utilization strategies were observed, such as a Fe luxury uptake mechanism, a P-sparing effect and colony formation. In addition, during a field study using natural phytoplankton assemblages from the temperate Northeast Atlantic Ocean the critical role of dissolved Fe (DFe) was again highlighted by the remarkably enhanced N2 fixation rate observed after the addition of DFe under low temperature and P-depleted conditions. At the time of our study no Trichodesmium filaments were found in the studied region, the diazotrophic community was dominated by unicellular cyanobacteria symbiont (prymnesiophyte-UCYN-A1) and heterotrophic diazotrophs, therefore demonstrating that DFe could as well be the ultimate factor limiting N2 fixation of these smaller diazotrophs. Recently, the effects of ongoing climate change (ocean warming and acidification) on N2 fixation drew much attention, but various studies led to controversial conclusions. Semi-continuous dilution growth experiments were conducted on Trichodesmium IMS101 under present-day and future high pCO2 (400 and 800 µatm, respectively) and warming seawater (24 and 28 °C) conditions. The results indicate that higher pCO2 and therefore ocean acidification may be beneficial for Trichodesmium growth and N2 fixation. However, our observations suggest that Fe or P limitation in oligotrophic seawaters may offset the stimulation induced on Trichodesmium IMS101 resulting from ocean acidification. In contrast, ocean warming may not play an important role in Trichodesmium growth and N2 fixation with a 4 °C increase from 24 °C to 28 °C. Nevertheless, ocean warming is predicted to cause a shift in the geographical distribution of Trichodesmium species toward higher latitudes, extending its niche to subtropical ocean regions and potentially reducing its coverage in tropical ocean basins.

Li X., Fonseca-Batista D., Roevros N., Dehairs F. & Chou L., in press. Environmental and nutrient controls of marine nitrogen fixation. Progress in Oceanography. Article (subscription required).

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