Biogeochemistry & Ecophysiology at Duke University

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Revisiting the distribution of marine N2 fixation

Marine N2 fixation supports a significant portion of oceanic primary production by making N2 bioavailable to planktonic communities, in the process influencing atmosphere-ocean carbon fluxes and our global climate. However, the geographical distribution and controlling factors of marine N2 fixation remain elusive largely due to sparse observations. Here we present unprecedented high-resolution underway N2 fixation estimates across over 6,000 kilometers of the western North Atlantic. Unexpectedly, we find increasing N2 fixation rates from the oligotrophic Sargasso Sea to North America coastal waters, driven primarily by cyanobacterial diazotrophs. N2 fixation is best correlated to phosphorus availability and chlorophyll-a concentration. Globally, intense N2 fixation activity in the coastal oceans is validated by a meta-analysis of published observations and we estimate the annual coastal N2 fixation flux to be 16.7 Tg N. This study broadens the biogeography of N2 fixation, highlights the interplay of regulating factors, and reveals thriving diazotrophic communities in coastal waters with potential significance to the global nitrogen cycle.

For more information, see publication.


Towards quantitative microbiome community profiling using internal standards.

High-throughput sequencing based marine microbiome profiling is rapidly expanding and changing how we study the oceans. Although powerful, the technique is not fully quantitative – it only provides taxon counts in relative abundances. In order to address this issue, we presented a method to quantitatively estimate microbial abundances per unit volume of seawater filtered by spiking in known amounts of internal DNA standards to each sample. We validated this method by comparing the calculated abundances to other independent estimates including chemical markers (pigments) and total bacterial cell counts by flow cytometry. The internal standard approach allows us to quantitatively estimate and compare marine microbial community profiles, with important implications for linking environmental microbiomes to quantitative processes such as metabolic and biogeochemical rates.

QMP and RMP using internal DNA standard method.

PhD Students Alex and Weiyi Take Part in NASA EXPORTS Research Cruise

PhD students Alex Niebergall and Weiyi Tang participated in a NASA-funded research cruise in the Northern Pacific Ocean as part of the Export Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing (EXPORTS) project. EXPORTS is a multi-institutional research initiative that seeks to develop a predictive understanding of the export and fate of global ocean net primary production and its implications for present and future climates. The students’ research project specifically looked at the role marine microbes play in drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Duke Environment corresponded with PhD students Alexandria Niebergall and Weiyi Tang to discuss their experience on the EXPORTS research cruise, what sparked their interest in the field and how it will contribute to their own research moving forward.

Factors confounding the interpretation of the oceanic carbon export ratio

See Li and Cassar 2018.

The fraction of primary production exported out of the surface ocean, known as the export ratio ( ef-ratio), is often used to assess how various factors, including temperature, primary production, phytoplankton size and community structure, affect the export efficiency of an ecosystem. To investigate possible causes for reported discrepancies in the dominant factors influencing the export efficiency, we develop a metabolism-based mechanistic model of the ef-ratio. Consistent with earlier studies, we find based on theoretical considerations that the ef-ratio is a negative function of temperature. We show that the -ratio depends on the optical depth, defined as the physical depth times the light attenuation coefficient. As a result, varying light attenuation may confound the interpretation of ef-ratio when measured at a fixed depth (e.g., 100 m) or at the base of the mixed layer. Finally, we decompose the contribution of individual factors on the seasonality of the ef-ratio. Our results show that at high latitudes, the ef-ratio at the base of mixed layer is strongly influenced by mixed layer depth and surface irradiation on seasonal timescales. Future studies should report the ef-ratio at the base of euphotic layer, or account for the effect of varying light attenuation if measured at a different depth. Overall, our modeling study highlights the large number of factors confounding the interpretation of field observations of the ef-ratio.



NanoSIMS single cell analyses reveal the contrasting nitrogen sources for small phytoplankton

Nitrogen (N) is a limiting nutrient in vast regions of the world’s oceans, yet the sources of N available to various phytoplankton groups remain poorly understood. In this study, we investigated inorganic carbon (C) fixation rates and nitrate (NO3), ammonium (NH4+) and urea uptake rates at the single cell level in photosynthetic pico-eukaryotes (PPE) and the cyanobacteria Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus. To that end, we used dual 15N and 13C-labeled incubation assays coupled to flow cytometry cell sorting and nanoSIMS analysis on samples collected in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG) and in the California Current System (CCS). Based on these analyses, we found that photosynthetic growth rates (based on C fixation) of PPE were higher in the CCS than in the NSPG, while the opposite was observed for Prochlorococcus. Reduced forms of N (NH4+ and urea) accounted for the majority of N acquisition for all the groups studied. NO3 represented a reduced fraction of total N uptake in all groups but was higher in PPE (17.4 ± 11.2% on average) than in Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus (4.5 ± 6.5 and 2.9 ± 2.1% on average, respectively). This may in part explain the contrasting biogeography of these picoplankton groups. Moreover, single cell analyses reveal that cell-to-cell heterogeneity within picoplankton groups was significantly greater for NO3 uptake than for C fixation and NH4+ uptake. We hypothesize that cellular heterogeneity in NO3 uptake within groups facilitates adaptation to the fluctuating availability of NO3 in the environment.

Linking patterns of net community production and marine microbial community structure in the western North Atlantic

Hot off the press paper by Seaver Wang in The ISME Journal

Marine net community production (NCP) tracks uptake of carbon by plankton communities and its potential transport to depth. Relationships between marine microbial community composition and NCP currently remain unclear despite their importance for assessing how different taxa impact carbon export. We conducted 16 and 18S rRNA gene (rDNA) sequencing on samples collected across the Western North Atlantic in parallel with high-resolution O2/Ar-derived NCP measurements. Using an internal standard technique to estimate in-situ prokaryotic and eukaryotic rDNA abundances per liter, we employed statistical approaches to relate patterns of microbial diversity to NCP. Taxonomic abundances calculated using internal standards provided valuable context to traditional relative abundance metrics. A bloom in the Mid-Atlantic Bight featured high eukaryote abundances with low eukaryotic diversity and was associated with the harmful algal bloom-forming Aureococcus anophagefferens, phagotrophic algae, heterotrophic flagellates, and particle-associated bacteria. These results show that coastal Aureococcus blooms host a distinct community associated with regionally significant peaks in NCP. Meanwhile, weak relationships between taxonomy and NCP in less-productive waters suggest that productivity across much of this region is not linked to specific microplankton taxa.

New method for underway high-frequency N2 fixation estimates


Because of the difficulty in resolving the large variability of N2 fixation with current methods which rely on discrete sampling, the development of new methods for high resolution measurements is highly desirable. We present a new method for high-frequency measurements of aquatic N2 fixation by continuous flow-through incubations and spectral monitoring of the acetylene (C2H2, a substrate analog for N2) reduction to ethylene (C2H4). In this method, named “Flow-through incubation Acetylene Reduction Assays by Cavity ring-down laser Absorption Spectroscopy” (FARACAS), dissolved C2H2 is continuously admixed with seawater upstream of a continuous-flow stirred-tank reactor (CFSR) in which C2H2 reduction takes place. Downstream of the flow-through incubator, the C2H4 gas is stripped using a bubble column contactor and circulated with a diaphragm pump into a wavelength-scanned Cavity Ring Down laser absorption Spectrometer (CRDS). Our method provides high-resolution and precise mapping of aquatic N2 fixation, its diel cycle, and its response to environmental gradients, and can be adapted to measure other biological processes. The short-duration of the flow-through incubations without preconcentration of cells minimizes potential artefacts such as bottle containment effects while providing near real-time estimates for adaptive sampling. We expect that our new method will improve the characterization of the biogeography and kinetics of aquatic N2 fixation rates. See Cassar et al. 2018.

Cassar lab joins the NASA EXPORTS program

EXPORTS is a NASA large-scale field campaign that will provide critical information for quantifying the export and fate of upper ocean net primary production (NPP) from satellite observations. The overarching goal of EXPORTS is to develop a predictive understanding of the export and fate of global ocean primary production and its implications for the Earth’s carbon cycle in present and future climates.

Siegel et al. 2016


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