Aphotic N₂ fixation along an oligotrophic to ultraoligotrophic transect in the Western Tropical South Pacific Ocean
The western tropical South Pacific (WTSP) Ocean has been recognized as a global hot spot of dinitrogen (N₂) fixation. Here, as in other marine environments across the oceans, N₂ fixation studies have focused on the sunlit layer. However, studies have confirmed the importance of aphotic N₂ fixation activity, although until now only one had been performed in the WTSP. In order to increase our knowledge of aphotic N₂ fixation in the WTSP, we measured N₂ fixation rates and identified diazotrophic phylotypes in the mesopelagic layer along a transect spanning from New Caledonia to French Polynesia. Because non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs presumably need external dissolved organic matter (DOM) sources for their nutrition, we also identified DOM compounds using Fourier transform ion cyclotron resonance mass spectrometry (FTICRMS) with the aim of searching for relationships between the composition of DOM and non-cyanobacterial N₂ fixation in the aphotic ocean. N₂ fixation rates were low (average 0.63 ± 0.07 nmol N L⁻¹ d⁻¹) but consistently detected across all depths and stations, representing ∼ 6–88 % of photic N₂ fixation. N₂ fixation rates were not significantly correlated with DOM compounds. The analysis of nifH gene amplicons revealed a wide diversity of non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs, mostly matching clusters 1 and 3. Interestingly, a distinct phylotype from the major nifH subcluster 1G dominated at 650 dbar, coinciding with the oxygenated Subantarctic Mode Water (SAMW). This consistent pattern suggests that the distribution of aphotic diazotroph communities is to some extent controlled by water mass structure. While the data available are still too scarce to elucidate the distribution and controls of mesopelagic non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs in the WTSP, their prevalence in the mesopelagic layer and the consistent detection of active N₂ fixation activity at all depths sampled during our study suggest that aphotic N₂ fixation may contribute significantly to fixed nitrogen inputs in this area and/or areas downstream of water mass circulation.
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