Nitrogen assimilation in picocyanobacteria inhabiting the oxygen-deficient waters of the eastern tropical North and South Pacific

Montserrat Aldunate, Carlos Henríquez-Castillo, Qixing Ji, Jessica Lueders-Dumont, Margaret R. Mulholland, Bess B. Ward, Peter von Dassow, Osvaldo Ulloa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus are the most abundant free-living photosynthetic microorganisms in the ocean. Uncultivated lineages of these picocyanobacteria also thrive in the dimly illuminated upper part of oxygen-deficient zones (ODZs), where an important portion of ocean nitrogen (N) loss takes place via denitrification and anaerobic ammonium oxidation. Recent metagenomic studies revealed that ODZ Prochlorococcus have the genetic potential for using different N forms, including nitrate and nitrite, uncommon N sources for Prochlorococcus, but common for Synechococcus. To determine which N sources ODZ picocyanobacteria are actually using in nature, the cellular 15N natural abundance (δ15N) and assimilation rates of different N compounds were determined using cell sorting by flow cytometry and mass spectrometry. The natural δ15N of the ODZ Prochlorococcus varied from −4.0‰ to 13.0‰ (n = 9), with 50% of the values in the range of −2.1–2.6‰. While the highest values suggest nitrate use, most observations indicate the use of nitrite, ammonium, or a mixture of N sources. Meanwhile, incubation experiments revealed potential assimilation rates of ammonium and urea in the same order of magnitude as that expected for total N in several environments including ODZs, whereas rates of nitrite and nitrate assimilation were very low. Our results thus indicate that reduced forms of N and nitrite are the dominant sources for ODZ picocyanobacteria, although nitrate might be important on some occasions. ODZ picocyanobacteria might thus represent potential competitors with anammox bacteria for ammonium and nitrite, with ammonia-oxidizing archaea for ammonium, and with nitrite-oxidizing bacteria for nitrite.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)437-453
Number of pages17
JournalLimnology and Oceanography
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


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