Why Is Planktonic Nitrogen Fixation So Rare in Coastal Marine Ecosystems? Insights from a Cross-Systems Approach

  • Roxanne Marino
  • Robert W. Howarth


The process of di-nitrogen (N2) fixation is widespread in nature, including in many aquatic ecosystems. In lakes, N2 fixation by planktonic cyanobacteria often contributes sufficient new nitrogen to maintain phosphorus limitation of primary production. However, it is intriguing that many estuaries and coastal marine ecosystems at salinities greater than 10 ppt are moderately to strongly N-limited despite high nutrient loading, and planktonic N2 fixation is rarely if ever an important process. Here, we review our collaborative research on mechanisms of control of planktonic N2 fixation in lakes and estuaries, using cross-systems and cross-scale comparative approaches. We conclude that a slower gross growth rate of planktonic cyanobacteria in seawater, coupled with a disproportionate sensitivity of heterocystous species to grazing by zooplankton, can severely constrain bloom development and so N2 fixation in estuaries under N-depleted conditions. A slower growth rate in saline vs. freshwaters is in part a consequence of an inhibition of molybdenum uptake by sulfate; the latter is present in much higher concentrations in seawater. Molybdenum is required for N2 fixation using the conventional form of the nitrogenase enzyme. In the chain-forming cyanobacteria that commonly form large blooms under N-depleted conditions in lakes, N2 fixation occurs in heterocysts, which do not produce oxygen from photosynthesis. As such, energy for the N2 fixation process must be supplied by the photosynthetic, vegetative cells. Clipping of filaments by grazing reduces the number of heterocysts that can be supported, and so further limits N2 fixation and population growth when exogenous N is in low supply.


Nitrogen fixation Molybdenum Nitrogen Estuaries Nutrient limitation 



We were fortunate during the development of the ideas and experiments described in the paper to have as colleagues several creative and broad-minded, cross-system comparative ecologists: Jon Cole, Gene Likens, Scott Nixon, and Mike Pace. Francis Chan’s doctoral research was integral to our mesocosm experiments and our understanding of the role of grazing. We thank Norbert Jaworski and others at the EPA Narragansett Bay lab during the 1990s, and Scott Nixon and the members of his lab group at the University of Rhode Island GSO for use of facilities and technical assistance with the mesocosm experiments. Much of the research described here was supported by grants from the NSF Ecosystems Program and an endowment from David R. Atkinson to Cornell University for the support of our research group and salary for RWH.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology and Evolutionary BiologyCornell UniversityIthacaUSA

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