Article

Marine Biology

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 213-227

First online:

Physiology and chemical composition of nitrogen-fixing phytoplankton in the central North Pacific Ocean

  • T. H. MagueAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Resources, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
  • , F. C. MagueAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Resources, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego
  • , O. Holm-HansenAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Resources, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego

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Abstract

The magnitude and physiological characteristics of biological nitrogen fixation have been studied in the oligotrophic waters of the North pacific gyre. The filamentous blue-green algae Trichodesmium spp. and Richelia intracellularis were the important nitrogen-fixing phytoplankton. Most of the nitrogen fixation occurs in the upper 40 m of the water column, with detectable fixation as deep as 90 m, which corresponds to about the 1 % light depth. There was no evidence of photoinhibition of nitrogen fixation, although CO2 reduction was depressed slightly at the highest light levels. The rate of nitrogen fixation in the water column varied throughout the day, being highest in mid-morning and in late afternoon. Relatively high fixation rates were also found during periods of darkness. Elevated oxygen concentrations had a marked inhibitory effect on rates of nitrogen fixation, a pO2 of 0.4 atm causing a 75% inhibition. Data from studies of nitrogen fixation and assimilation rates of 15N-labelled nitrate, ammonium, and urea indicate that nitrogen fixation furnished about 3% of the total daily fixed nitrogen requirement for phytoplankton growth. Studies with isolated colonies of Trichodesmium spp. indicated that 100% of their nitrogen requirement was met by nitrogen fixation. Chemical composition of the Trichodesmium colonies showed that the C:N ratio was 4.1 and that their phosphorus content relative to carbon or nitrogen was much lower than that of the total particulate material in the water column. Elevated ratios of carbon: adenosine triphosphate (ATP) also suggest that phosphorus deficiency may be limiting the growth of Trichodesmium. The magnitude of nitrogen fixation in the gyre is seasonally dependent, with high rates in late summer and autumn. At these times the water column is stratified, with phosphate and nitrate barely detectable in the upper 100 m. Our data suggest that during these months of stratification, biological fixation of nitrogen amounts to about 33 μg-at N/m2/day.