Temporal patterns of nitrogenase gene (nifH) expression in the oligotrophic North Pacific Ocean

Matthew J. Church, Cindy M. Short, Bethany D. Jenkins, David M. Karl, Jonathan P. Zehr

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242 Scopus citations


Dinitrogen (N2)-fixing microorganisms (diazotrophs) play important roles in ocean biogeochemistry and plankton productivity. In this study, we examined the presence and expression of specific planktonic nitrogenase genes (nifH) in the upper ocean (0 to 175 m) at Station ALOHA in the oligotrophic North Pacific Ocean. Clone libraries constructed from reverse-transcribed PCR-amplified mRNA revealed six unique phylotypes. Five of the nifH phylotypes grouped with sequences from unicellular and filamentous cyanobacteria, and one of the phylotypes clustered with γ-proteobacteria. The cyanobacterial nifH phylotypes retrieved included two sequence types that phylogenetically grouped with unicellular cyanobacteria (termed groups A and B), several sequences closely related (97 to 99%) to Trichodesmium spp. and Katagnymene spiralis, and two previously unreported phylotypes clustering with heterocyst-forming nifH cyanobacteria. Temporal patterns of nifH expression were evaluated using reverse-transcribed quantitative PCR amplification of nifH gene transcripts. The filamentous and presumed unicellular group A cyanobacterial phylotypes exhibited elevated nifH transcription during the day, while members of the group B (closely related to Crocosphaera watsonii) unicellular phylotype displayed greater nifH transcription at night. In situ nifH expression by all of the cyanobacterial phylotypes exhibited pronounced diel periodicity. The γ-proteobacterial phylotype had low transcript abundance and did not exhibit a clear diurnal periodicity in nifH expression. The temporal separation of nifH expression by the various phylotypes suggests that open ocean diazotrophic cyanobacteria have unique in situ physiological responses to daily fluctuations of light in the upper ocean.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5362-5370
Number of pages9
JournalApplied and Environmental Microbiology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2005


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