Heterogeneity in diazotroph diversity and activity within a putative hotspot for marine nitrogen fixation
Australia’s tropical waters represent predicted “hotspots” for nitrogen (N2) fixation based on empirical and modelled data. However, the identity, activity and ecology of N2 fixing bacteria (diazotrophs) within this region are virtually unknown. By coupling DNA and cDNA sequencing of nitrogenase genes (nifH) with size fractionated N2 fixation rate measurements, we elucidated diazotroph dynamics across the shelf region of the Arafura and Timor Seas (ATS) and oceanic Coral Sea during Austral spring and winter. During spring, Trichodesmium dominated ATS assemblages, comprising 60% of nifH DNA sequences, while Candidatus Atelocyanobacterium thalassa (UCYN-A) comprised 42% in the Coral Sea. In contrast, during winter the relative abundance of heterotrophic unicellular diazotrophs (∂-proteobacteria and gamma-24774A11) increased in both regions, concomitant with a marked decline in UCYN-A sequences, whereby this clade effectively disappeared in the Coral Sea. Conservative estimates of N2 fixation rates ranged from < 1 to 91 nmol L-1 d-1, and size fractionation indicated that unicellular organisms dominated N2 fixation during both spring and winter, but average unicellular rates were up to 10-fold higher in winter than spring. Relative abundances of UCYN-A1 and gamma-24774A11 nifH transcripts negatively correlated to silicate and phosphate, suggesting an affinity for oligotrophy. Our results indicate that Australia’s tropical waters are indeed hotspots for N2 fixation, and that regional physicochemical characteristics drive differential contributions of cyanobacterial and heterotrophic phylotypes to N2 fixation.