Nitrogen fixation


Photosynthesis and fixation of atmospheric dinitrogen which are two fundamental processes that are performed by organisms at the basis of aquatic food webs – the phytoplankton and bacterioplankton. Dinitrogen fixation is a biological transformation carried out only by a subgroup of prokaryotic organisms (diazotrophs) that can utilize atmospheric nitrogen (N2), unavailable for most organisms, and convert it into a form of nitrogen that is used for growth. This process is extremely important in many nitrogen-poor surface waters of the oceans, and injects a new source of bioavailable nitrogen to areas where nitrogen limits growth and primary production by the ocean’s tiny plants – the phytoplankton. In our research we explore how diazotrophs influence bio-geochemical cycling of carbon and nitrogen in the face of climatic changes. These changes include global warming and ocean acidification due to increased dissolution of atmospheric CO2 in the oceans.

Collaboration with Dr. Yeala Shaked (IUI- Hebrew University) on iron uptake of Red Sea populations of Trichodesmium (a globally important N2 fixer in the tropical and subtropical oceans with blooms extending over thousands of kilometers) has illustrated that the colonies actively take up and shuttle Fe along the filaments to the center of the colony where it is dissolved and assimilated into the cells. We have also demonstrated that the future projections of high CO2 in the oceans can enhance nitrogen fixation and growth of this marine cyanobacterium and indicate that Trichodesmium will thrive in the future warmer and more acidified oceans.

Close-up on dust-loaded puff, showing the entrainment of the dust within the colony core (Rubin et al., 2011, Nature geoscience)

Further research on other diazotrophs in the Gulf of Eilat shows that a large diversity including bacterioplankton. These are not restricted like the phytoplankton to the upper sunlit areas of the surface oceans, and can fix nitrogen in deep dark layers. We measure N2 fixation rates from oceanic zones that have traditionally been ignored as sources of biological N2 fixation; the dark, fully oxygenated, nitrate (NO3)-rich, waters of the oligotrophic Gulf of Aqaba and the eastern Mediterranean. Our results suggest that while N2 fixation may be limited in the surface waters of the oligotrophic Mediterranean and Red Seas, N2 fixation from the deeper and dark ocean layers may contribute significantly to new N inputs, yet these inputs are currently not included in regional or global N budgets.