Little is known about the dynamics of dissolved phosphate in oligotrophic areas of the world's oceans, where concentrations are typically in the nanomolar range. Here, we have budgeted phosphate uptake by the dominant microbial groups in order to assess the effect of the microbial control of this depleted nutrient in the North Atlantic gyre. Low concentrations (2.2 ± 1.2 nM) and rapid microbial uptake (2.1 ± 2.4 nM day−1) of bioavailable phosphate were repeatedly determined in surface waters of the North Atlantic oligotrophic gyre during spring and autumn research cruises, using a radiotracer dilution bioassay technique. Upper estimates of the concentration of bioavailable phosphate were 7–55% of the dissolved mineral phosphate suggesting that a considerable part of the chemically measured nanomolar phosphate was in a form unavailable for direct microbial uptake. A 1:1 relationship (r2 = 0.96, P < 0.0001) was observed between the bioavailable total phosphate uptake and the phosphate uptake of all the flow sorted bacterioplankton cells, demonstrating that bacterioplankton were the main consumers of phosphate. Within the bacterioplankton a group of heterotrophic bacteria and Prochlorococcus phototrophic cyanobacteria, were the two major competing groups for bioavailable phosphate. These heterotrophic bacteria had low nucleic acid content and 60% of them comprised of SAR11 clade cells based on the results of fluorescence in situ hybridization. Each of the two competing bacterial groups was responsible for an average of 45% of the phosphate uptake, while Synechococcus cyanobacteria (7%) and picoplanktonic algae (0.3%) played minor roles in direct phosphate uptake. We have demonstrated that phosphate uptake in the oligotrophic gyre is rapid and dominated by two bacterial groups rather than by algae.
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