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ISME J. 2015 Dec;9(12):2682-96. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2015.44. Epub 2015 Apr 7.

Size-fraction partitioning of community gene transcription and nitrogen metabolism in a marine oxygen minimum zone.

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School of Biology, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta, GA, USA.
Department of Biology and Nordic Center for Earth Evolution (NordCEE), University of Southern Denmark, Odense, Denmark.


The genetic composition of marine microbial communities varies at the microscale between particle-associated (PA; >1.6 μm) and free-living (FL; 0.2-1.6 μm) niches. It remains unclear, however, how metabolic activities differ between PA and FL fractions. We combined rate measurements with metatranscriptomics to quantify PA and FL microbial activity in the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) of the Eastern Tropical North Pacific, focusing on dissimilatory processes of the nitrogen (N) cycle. Bacterial gene counts were 8- to 15-fold higher in the FL compared with the PA fraction. However, rates of all measured N cycle processes, excluding ammonia oxidation, declined significantly following particle (>1.6 μm) removal. Without particles, rates of nitrate reduction to nitrite (1.5-9.4nMNd(-1)) fell to zero and N2 production by denitrification (0.5-1.7nMNd(-1)) and anammox (0.3-1.9nMNd(-1)) declined by 53-85%. The proportional representation of major microbial taxa and N cycle gene transcripts in metatranscriptomes followed fraction-specific trends. Transcripts encoding nitrate reductase were uniform among PA and FL fractions, whereas anammox-associated transcripts were proportionately enriched up to 15-fold in the FL fraction. In contrast, transcripts encoding enzymes for N2O and N2 production by denitrification were enriched up to 28-fold in PA samples. These patterns suggest that the majority of N cycle activity, excluding N2O and N2 production by denitrification, is confined to a FL majority that is critically dependent on access to particles, likely as a source of organic carbon and inorganic N. Variable particle distributions may drive heterogeneity in N cycle activity and gene expression in OMZs.

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