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Primary production by Prochlorococcus, the smallest known free-living photosynthetic organism in terms of both physical and genomic size, is thought to have a significant role in global carbon cycles. Despite its small size and low growth rate, Prochlorococcus numerically dominates the phytoplankton community in the nutrient-poor oligotrophic ocean, the largest biome of the Earth’s surface. How nutrient limitation, and nitrogen limitation in particular, affects the fate and flux of carbon fixed by Prochlorococcus is currently unknown. To address this gap in knowledge, we compared the bulk rates of photosynthesis and organic carbon release, the concentrations of intracellular metabolites, and the rates of assimilated carbon into the metabolite pools between replete and N-limited chemostat cultures. Total photosynthesis of our N-limited cultures was less than half of those observed in replete cultures, and nitrogen limitation also appears to cause a larger proportion of total fixed carbon to be released to the environment. Our data suggest this occurs in concert with the maintenance of large slow-moving pools of metabolites, including nitrogen-rich molecules such as glutamate. Additionally, we report field data suggesting metabolisms of Prochlorococcus are comparable to results we observe in our laboratory studies. Accounting for these observations, potential metabolic mechanisms utilized by Prochlorococcus are discussed as we build upon our understanding of nutrient-limited photosynthesis and carbon metabolism.


This article was published openly thanks to the University of Tennessee Open Publishing Support Fund.

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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