Marine fixation of atmospheric nitrogen is believed to be an important source of biologically useful nitrogen to ocean surface waters, stimulating productivity of phytoplankton and so influencing the global carbon cycle. The majority of nitrogen fixation in tropical waters is carried out by the marine cyanobacterium Trichodesmium, which supplies more than half of the new nitrogen used for primary production. Although the factors controlling marine nitrogen fixation remain poorly understood, it has been thought that nitrogen fixation is limited by iron availability in the ocean. This was inferred from the high iron requirement estimated for growth of nitrogen fixing organisms and the higher apparent densities of Trichodesmium where aeolian iron inputs are plentiful. Here we report that nitrogen fixation rates in the central Atlantic appear to be independent of both dissolved iron levels in sea water and iron content in Trichodesmium colonies. Nitrogen fixation was, instead, highly correlated to the phosphorus content of Trichodesmium and was enhanced at higher irradiance. Furthermore, our calculations suggest that the structural iron requirement for the growth of nitrogen-fixing organisms is much lower than previously calculated. Although iron deficiency could still potentially limit growth of nitrogen-fixing organisms in regions of low iron availability—for example, in the subtropical North Pacific Ocean—our observations suggest that marine nitrogen fixation is not solely regulated by iron supply.
Raven, J., Capone, D. G., Carpenter, E. J., Hutchins, D. A., Sanudo-Wilhelmy, S. A., Kustka, A. B., Gobler, C. J., Yang, M., Lwiza, K., & Burn, J. (2001). Phosphorus limitation of nitrogen fixation by Trichodesmium in the central Atlantic Ocean. Nature, 411(6833), 66-69. https://doi.org/10.1038/35075041