Metagenomic analysis reveals global-scale patterns of ocean nutrient limitation

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Science  16 Apr 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6539, pp. 287-291
DOI: 10.1126/science.abe6301

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Genomes reveal nutrient stress patterns

Within the surface ocean, nitrogen, iron, and phosphorous can all be limiting nutrients for phytoplankton depending on location. Ustick et al. used the prevalence of Prochlorococcus genes involved in nutrient acquisition to develop maps of inferred nutrient stress across the global ocean (see the Perspective by Coleman). They found broad patterns of limitation consistent with an Earth system model and nutrient addition experiments. Leveraging metagenomic data in this manner is an appealing approach that will help to expand our understanding of the biogeochemistry in the vast open ocean.

Science, this issue p. 287; see also p. 239


Nutrient supply regulates the activity of phytoplankton, but the global biogeography of nutrient limitation and co-limitation is poorly understood. Prochlorococcus adapt to local environments by gene gains and losses, and we used genomic changes as an indicator of adaptation to nutrient stress. We collected metagenomes from all major ocean regions as part of the Global Ocean Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program (Bio-GO-SHIP) and quantified shifts in genes involved in nitrogen, phosphorus, and iron assimilation. We found regional transitions in stress type and severity as well as widespread co-stress. Prochlorococcus stress genes, bottle experiments, and Earth system model predictions were correlated. We propose that the biogeography of multinutrient stress is stoichiometrically linked by controls on nitrogen fixation. Our omics-based description of phytoplankton resource use provides a nuanced and highly resolved description of nutrient stress in the global ocean.

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