Environmental factors and thresholds for nitrogen fixation by phytoplankton in tropical reservoirs

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Department of Biological Sciences


In theory, the phytoplankton community of freshwater ecosystems with low concentrations of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) can obtain this element by atmospheric nitrogen (N2) fixation. This process could explain the dominance of cyanobacteria in tropical reservoirs, yet is rarely quantified in these systems. Assessing the factors related to N2 fixation can assist in the management of cyanobacterial blooms. Our study characterized environmental factors related to N2 fixation in Brazilian tropical reservoirs with contrasting trophic states, and defined quantitative thresholds for water chemistry and physical characteristics that stimulated N2 fixation. We used field assays with 15N for estimating N2 fixation rates by phytoplankton. The highest rates normalized by chlorophyll-a (maximum of 143 × 10−4 μg-N μg-Chl-a−1 h−1) coincided with eutrophic conditions and presence of diazotrophs. Receiver operating characteristic (ROC) analysis provided significant thresholds for water temperature (≥22°C), soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) (≥3.0 μg-P L−1), total phosphorus (TP) (≥20.5 μg-P L−1), DIN:SRP (≤487) and DIN:TP (≤82) molar ratios, chlorophyll-a (≥12 μg L−1), and total suspended solids (≥4 mg L−1). Censored regressions confirmed that temperature, chlorophyll-a, and phosphorus were important predictors of N2 fixation rates. In general, the N2 fixation rates determined in this study were lower than those found for temperate reservoirs. However, the temperature threshold of 22°C or above, identified in our analysis, suggests that phytoplankton have the potential to fix N2 throughout the year in tropical reservoirs. Our results suggested that phosphorus is the main nutrient controlling the rates of N2 fixation when N2-fixing cyanobacteria were present. Phosphorus abatement is, thus, crucial for managing the trophic state and controlling N2-fixing cyanobacteria in these ecosystems.

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© 2020 Wiley-VCH GmbH. Publisher’s version of record: https://doi.org/10.1002/iroh.202002057

Publication Title

International Review of Hydrobiology