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Keywords:

  • diel periodicity;
  • iron use efficiency;
  • nitrogen fixation;
  • nitrogenase;
  • superoxide dismutase

Estimates of the iron use efficiency (IUE) for diazotrophic plant growth have been used to suggest iron limitation of marine N2 fixation. However, in the course of these inferences, neither the physiological complexity of these estimates nor the specific physiological parameters of marine diazotrophs were evaluated. Here, a semiempirical prediction of the IUE of diazotrophic growth for Trichodesmium was computed from considerations of the Fe content and reaction rates of the nitrogenase complex and PSI:PSII ratios, as well as field measurements of Mehler activity, cellular Fe-superoxide dismutase activity, and diel variability in C and N2 fixation. With a PSI:PSII ratio of 1 and 48% Mehler activity, the instantaneous IUE (0.33 mol C fixed·mol cellular Fe1·s1) was only 4-fold lower than that calculated for a phytoplankter growing on reduced N. We computed a range of daily integrated IUE values from 2900 to 7700 mol C·mol Fe1·d1, accounting for the diel variability in C and N2 fixation as well as the uncertainties in cyanobacterial nitrogenase biochemistry and PSI:II ratios of field-collected Trichodesmium. The lowest observed Fe-superoxide dismutase:C quota of 2.9 (μmol:mol) suggests a maintenance requirement for this enzyme. The maintenance Fe:C requirement of 13.5 μmol:mol (derived from cultures of Trichodesmium IMS 101) and values of the IUE yielded an Fe requirement ranging from 27 to 48 Fe:C (μmol:mol) to achieve a diazotrophic growth rate of 0.1 d1. Based on these predicted requirements, the Fe:C contents of Caribbean Sea and most North Atlantic Ocean populations sampled thus far exceed that required to support the observed rates of N2 fixation.