Iron limitation effects on nitrogen-fixing organisms with possible implications for cyanobacterial blooms


Cyanobacteria-dominated harmful algal blooms are increasing in occurrence. Many of the taxa contributing to these blooms are capable of fixing atmospheric nitrogen and should be favored under conditions of low nitrogen availability. Yet, synthesizing nitrogenase, the enzyme responsible for nitrogen fixation, is energetically expensive and requires substantial concentrations of iron. Phosphorus addition to nitrogen poor streams should promote nitrogen fixation, but experimental results so far have been inconclusive, suggesting that other factors may be involved in controlling this process. With iron potentially limited in many streams, we examined the influence of phosphorus-iron colimitation on the community structure of nitrogen-fixing organisms. In stream microcosms, using microscopic and molecular sequence data, we observed: (i) the greatest abundance of heterocyst forming nitrogen-fixing cyanobacteria in low nitrogen treatments with high phosphorus and iron and (ii) greater abundance of non-photosynthetic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in treatments with nitrogen compared to those without it. We also found that comparisons between molecular results and those obtained from microscopic identification provided complementary information about cyanobacterial communities. Our investigation indicates the potential for phosphorus-iron colimitation of stream nitrogen-fixing organisms.



Document Type




Community structure, Cyanobacteria, CyanoHABs, nifH, Nitrogen-fixers, Phosphorus-iron colimitation

Publication Date


Journal Title

FEMS Microbiology Ecology