Diazotrophs are overlooked contributors to carbon and nitrogen export to the deep ocean

Sophie Bonnet, Mar Benavides, Frédéric A.C. Le Moigne, Mercedes Camps, Antoine Torremocha, Olivier Grosso, Céline Dimier, Dina Spungin, Ilana Berman-Frank, Laurence Garczarek, Francisco M. Cornejo-Castillo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Diazotrophs are widespread microorganisms that alleviate nitrogen limitation in 60% of our oceans, thereby regulating marine productivity. Yet, the group-specific contribution of diazotrophs to organic matter export has not been quantified, which so far has impeded an accurate assessment of their impact on the biological carbon pump. Here, we examine the fate of five groups of globally-distributed diazotrophs by using an original combination of mesopelagic particle sampling devices across the subtropical South Pacific Ocean. We demonstrate that cyanobacterial and non-cyanobacterial diazotrophs are exported down to 1000 m depth. Surprisingly, group-specific export turnover rates point to a more efficient export of small unicellular cyanobacterial diazotrophs (UCYN) relative to the larger and filamentous Trichodesmium. Phycoerythrin-containing UCYN-B and UCYN-C-like cells were recurrently found embedded in large (>50 µm) organic aggregates or organized into clusters of tens to hundreds of cells linked by an extracellular matrix, presumably facilitating their export. Beyond the South Pacific, our data are supported by analysis of the Tara Oceans metagenomes collected in other ocean basins, extending the scope of our results globally. We show that, when diazotrophs are found in the euphotic zone, they are also systematically present in mesopelagic waters, suggesting their transport to the deep ocean. We thus conclude that diazotrophs are a significant part of the carbon sequestered in the deep ocean and, therefore, they need to be accounted in regional and global estimates of export.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-58
Number of pages12
JournalISME Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

Bibliographical note

© 2022. The Author(s).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Microbiology


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