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Measurements of nitrogen fixation in the oligotrophic North Pacific Subtropical Gyre using a free-drifting submersible incubation device


One challenge in field-based marine microbial ecology is to achieve sufficient spatial resolution to obtain representative information about microbial distributions and biogeochemical processes. The challenges are exacerbated when conducting rate measurements of biological processes due to potential perturbations during sampling and incubation. Here we present the first application of a robotic microlaboratory, the 4 L-submersible incubation device (SID), for conducting in situ measurements of the rates of biological nitrogen (N2) fixation (BNF). The free-drifting autonomous instrument obtains samples from the water column that are incubated in situ after the addition of 15N2 tracer. After each of up to four consecutive incubation experiments, the 4-L sample is filtered and chemically preserved. Measured BNF rates from two deployments of the SID in the oligotrophic North Pacific ranged from 0.8 to 2.8 nmol N L-1 day-1, values comparable with simultaneous rate measurements obtained using traditional conductivity-temperature-depth (CTD)-rosette sampling followed by on-deck or in situ incubation. Future deployments of the SID will help to better resolve spatial variability of oceanic BNF, particularly in areas where recovery of seawater samples by CTD compromises their integrity, e.g. anoxic habitats.

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