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While we now know that N2 fixation is a significant source of new nitrogen (N) in the marine environment, little is known about the fate of this N (and associated C), despite the importance of diazotrophs to global carbon and nutrient cycles. Specifically, does N fixed during N2 fixation fuel autotrophic or heterotrophic growth and thus facilitate carbon (C) export from the euphotic zone, or does it contribute primarily to bacterial productivity and respiration in the euphotic zone? For Trichodesmium, the diazotroph we know the most about, the transfer of recently fixed N2 (and C) appears to be primarily through dissolved pools. The release of N varies among and within populations and as a result of the changing physiological state of cells and populations. The net result of trophic transfers appears to depend on the co-occurring organisms and the complexity of the colonizing community. In order to understand the impact of diazotrophy on carbon flow and export in marine systems, we need a better understanding of the trophic flow of elements in Trichodesmium-dominated communities and other diazotrophic communities under various defined physiological states. Nitrogen and carbon fixation rates themselves vary by orders of magnitude within and among studies of Trichodesmium, highlighting the difficulty in extrapolating global rates of N2 fixation from direct measurements. Because the stoichiometry of N2 and C fixation does not appear to be in balance with that of particles, and the relationship between C and N2 fixation rates is also variable, it is equally difficult to derive global rates of one from the other. This paper seeks to synthesize what is known about the fate of diazotrophic production in the environment. A better understanding of the physiology and physiological ecology of Trichodesmium and other marine diazotrophs is necessary to quantify and predict the effects of increased or decreased diazotrophy in the context of the carbon cycle and global change.

Original Publication Citation

Mulholland, M.R. (2007). The fate of nitrogen fixed by diazotrophs in the ocean. Biogeosciences, 4(1), 37-51. doi: 10.5194/bg-4-37-2007