Distribution and activity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in marine and estuarine waters

University dissertation from Växjö, Kalmar : Linnaeus University Press

Abstract: In aquatic environments the availability of nitrogen (N) generally limits primary production. N2-fixing prokaryotes (diazotrophs) can convert N2 gas into ammonium and provide significant input of N into the oceans. Cyanobacteria are thought to be the main N2-fixers but diazotrophs also include a wide range of heterotrophic bacteria. However, their activity and regulation in the water column is largely unknown.In this thesis the distribution, diversity, abundance, and activity of marine and estuarine heterotrophic diazotrophs was investigated. With molecular methods targeting the nifH gene, encoding the nitrogenase enzyme for N2 fixation, it was shown that diverse nifH genes affiliating with heterotrophic bacteria were ubiquitous in surface waters from ten marine locations world-wide and the estuarine Baltic Sea. Through enrichment cultures of Baltic Sea surface water in anaerobic N-free medium, heterotrophic N2 fixation was induced showing that there was a functional N2-fixing community present and isolates of heterotrophic diazotrophs were obtained. In Sargasso Sea surface waters, transcripts of nifH related to heterotrophic bacteria were detected indicating heterotrophic N2-fixing activity.Nitrogenase expression is thought to be highly regulated by the availability of inorganic N and the presence of oxygen. Low oxygen zones within the water column can be found in association with plankton. The presence of diazotrophs as symbionts of heterotrophic dinoflagellates was investigated and nifH genes related to heterotrophic diazotrophs rather than the cyanobacterial symbionts were found, suggesting that a symbiotic co-existence prevailed. Oxic-anoxic interfaces could also be potential sites for heterotrophic N2 fixation. The Baltic Sea contains large areas of anoxic bottom water. At the chemocline and in anoxic deep water heterotrophic diazotrophs were diverse, abundant and active. These findings extend the currently known regime of N2 fixation to also include ammonium-rich anaerobic waters.The results of this thesis suggest that heterotrophic diazotrophs are diverse and widely distributed in marine and estuarine waters and that they can also be active. However, limits in the knowledge on their physiology and factors which regulate their N2 fixation activity currently prevent an evaluation of their importance in the global marine N budget.

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