Nitrogen Fixation in Denitrified Marine Waters
by Camila Fernandez, Laura Farías, Osvaldo Ulloa
Nitrogen fixation is an essential process that biologically transforms atmospheric dinitrogen gas to ammonia, therefore compensating for nitrogen losses occurring via denitrification and anammox. Currently, inputs and losses of nitrogen to the ocean resulting from these processes are thought to be spatially separated: nitrogen fixation takes place primarily in open ocean environments (mainly through diazotrophic cyanobacteria), whereas nitrogen losses occur in oxygen-depleted intermediate waters and sediments (mostly via denitrifying and anammox bacteria). Here we report on rates of nitrogen fixation obtained during two oceanographic cruises in 2005 and 2007 in the eastern tropical South Pacific (ETSP), a region characterized by the presence of coastal upwelling and a major permanent oxygen minimum zone (OMZ). Our results show significant rates of nitrogen fixation in the water column; however, integrated rates from the surface down to 120 m varied by ∼30 fold between cruises (7.5±4.6 versus 190±82.3 µmol m−2 d−1). Moreover, rates were measured down to 400 m depth in 2007, indicating that the contribution to the integrated rates of the subsurface oxygen-deficient layer was ∼5 times higher (574±294 µmol m−2 d−1) than the oxic euphotic layer (48±68 µmol m−2 d−1). Concurrent molecular measurements detected the dinitrogenase reductase gene nifH in surface and subsurface waters. Phylogenetic analysis of the nifH sequences showed the presence of a diverse diazotrophic community at the time of the highest measured nitrogen fixation rates. Our results thus demonstrate the occurrence of nitrogen fixation in nutrient-rich coastal upwelling systems and, importantly, within the underlying OMZ. They also suggest that nitrogen fixation is a widespread process that can sporadically provide a supplementary source of fixed nitrogen in these regions.