Variation of summer phytoplankton community composition and its relationship to nitrate and regenerated nitrogen assimilation across the North Atlantic Ocean

N. Van Oostende, S. E. Fawcett, D. Marconi, J. Lueders-Dumont, A. J.M. Sabadel, E. M.S. Woodward, B. F. Jönsson, Daniel Mikhail Sigman, Bettie Ward

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18 Scopus citations


The North Atlantic Ocean is considered a nitrogen (N) limited system once vernal stabilisation of the water column alleviates light limitation and allows phytoplankton growth to deplete surface nutrients to virtually undetectable levels. Ammonium and other regenerated N forms are then the main surface N source for phytoplankton production. The effort to determine which phytoplankton groups contribute to long-term biological export production would be greatly aided by information on which phytoplankton groups are responsible for the assimilation of nitrate, as opposed to those assimilating predominantly regenerated N. In this study, we used the natural abundance N isotopes to examine basin-scale patterns of nitrate and regenerated N assimilation and evaluated the relationships between these trends and phytoplankton community composition. Samples were collected during a summertime cruise transect (August–September 2013) from the subtropical (36°N 73°W) to the subarctic (54°N 20°W) North Atlantic and analysed for the N isotopic composition (δ15N vs. N2 in air) of particulate nitrogen (PN) and nitrate, size-fractionated chlorophyll a, and phytoplankton group biomass using flow cytometry. The depth of the 300 nmol l−1 nitrate isopleth shoaled from the subtropics (79 m), where phytoplankton stripped surface waters of nitrate, to the subarctic, where it intersected with the surface and the upward nutrient supply drove a summer phytoplankton bloom. The δ15N of PN above the nitracline increased from the subtropics (−0.3‰) to the subarctic (4.2‰), reflecting both a change in the δ15N of the subsurface nitrate source (from 2.4‰ to 5.1‰) and increased reliance by phytoplankton on nitrate relative to regenerated N. Throughout the transect, the phytoplankton community was mainly composed of pico- and nano-sized cells (>88% of chlorophyll a in the <20 µm size fraction). In the part of the transect southwest of the Grand Banks, Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus together dominated the picophytoplankton biomass (58% and 18% on average) and comprised 35% and 9%, respectively, of combined pico- and nanophytoplankton biomass. Pico- and nanoeukaryotes showed the opposite pattern, becoming more important closer to the subarctic (up to 31% and 86% of combined pico- and nanophytoplankton biomass, respectively). The North Atlantic summertime patterns in N assimilation implied by the N isotopes were consistent with a higher degree of nitrate assimilation by larger eukaryotic cells and greater reliance on regenerated N by cyanobacterial picophytoplankton, congruent with the observed biomass distributions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)79-94
Number of pages16
JournalDeep-Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers
StatePublished - Mar 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


  • North Atlantic Ocean
  • flow cytometry
  • nitrate utilization
  • nitrogen assimilation
  • nitrogen isotopes
  • phytoplankton community composition


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