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Phytoplankton transcriptomic and physiological responses to fixed nitrogen in the California current system.


Marine phytoplankton are responsible for approximately half of photosynthesis on Earth. However, their ability to drive ocean productivity depends on critical nutrients, especially bioavailable nitrogen (N) which is scarce over vast areas of the ocean. Phytoplankton differ in their preferences for N substrates as well as uptake efficiencies and minimal N requirements relative to other critical nutrients, including iron (Fe) and phosphorus. In this study, we used the MicroTOOLs high-resolution environmental microarray to examine transcriptomic responses of phytoplankton communities in the California Current System (CCS) transition zone to added urea, ammonium, nitrate, and also Fe in the late summer when N depletion is common. Transcript level changes of photosynthetic, carbon fixation, and nutrient stress genes indicated relief of N limitation in many strains of Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus, and eukaryotic phytoplankton. The transcriptomic responses helped explain shifts in physiological and growth responses observed later. All three phytoplankton groups had increased transcript levels of photosynthesis and/or carbon fixation genes in response to all N substrates. However, only Prochlorococcus had decreased transcript levels of N stress genes and grew substantially, specifically after urea and ammonium additions, suggesting that Prochlorococcus outcompeted other community members in these treatments. Diatom transcript levels of carbon fixation genes increased in response to Fe but not to Fe with N which might have favored phytoplankton that were co-limited by N and Fe. Moreover, transcription patterns of closely related strains indicated variability in N utilization, including nitrate utilization by some high-light adapted Prochlorococcus. Finally, up-regulation of urea transporter genes by both Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus in response to filtered deep water suggested a regulatory mechanism other than classic control via the global N regulator NtcA. This study indicated that co-existing phytoplankton strains experience distinct nutrient stresses in the transition zone of the CCS, an understudied region where oligotrophic and coastal communities naturally mix.

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