Inorganic and organic nitrogen uptake by phytoplankton and heterotrophic bacteria in the stratified Mid-Atlantic Bight

Paul B. Bradley, Marta P. Sanderson, Marc E. Frischer, Jennifer Brofft, Melissa G. Booth, Lee J. Kerkhof, Deborah A. Bronk

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

46 Scopus citations


Little is known about the relative importance of inorganic and organic nitrogen (N) sources in fueling production of phytoplankton versus heterotrophic bacteria on the continental shelf. This issue was addressed during two diel experiments conducted in the Mid-Atlantic Bight at the Long-term Ecosystem Observatory, LEO-15, off southern New Jersey. Uptake of 15N-labeled ammonium (NH4+), nitrate (NO3-), and nitrite (NO2-), and dual-labeled (15N and 13C) urea and dissolved free amino acids was measured in water taken from the surface and bottom mixed layers approximately every 4h over two 24h periods in July 2002. Two methods were used to quantify 15N uptake rates: (1) traditional filtration into various phytoplankton and bacterial size classes, and (2) flow cytometric (FCM) sorting of autotrophic cells based on the presence of chlorophyll autofluorescence. Due to a strong pycnocline, the nutrient composition was quite distinct between the surface and bottom mixed layers. Dissolved organic N (DON) comprised >99% of the total dissolved N (TDN) pool in surface waters, whereas the bottom-water TDN pool was roughly divided between NH4+, NO3-, and DON. Urea was the dominant N form used by all fractions at the surface, and although phytoplankton >3μm was responsible for most of the urea uptake, bacterial use was detected using stable isotopes and also suggested by ureC sequence analysis. The majority of ureC sequences recovered from the 0.2-0.8μm fraction belonged to members of the Alphaproteobacteria (46%), whereas those of the 0.8-3.0μm size class consisted primarily of Cyanobacteria (70%). In contrast to the surface, N uptake in the bottom layer was dominated by NH4+. The bacterial fraction was responsible for 20-49% of the size-fractionated NH4+ and NO3- uptake in surface samples and 36-93% at the bottom. These results suggest that organic N, such as urea, is a viable source of N nutrition to phytoplankton forced to compete with heterotrophic bacteria for limited inorganic N.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)429-441
Number of pages13
JournalEstuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 1 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography
  • Aquatic Science


  • ANW, USA, New Jersey
  • Bacteria
  • Dissolved organic nitrogen
  • Flow cytometry
  • LEO-15
  • Mid-Atlantic Bight
  • Nitrogen uptake
  • Phytoplankton
  • Urea

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