Diazotrophic cyanobacteria have long been recognized as important sources of reduced nitrogen (N) and therefore are important ecosystem components. Until recently, species of the filamentous cyanobacterium Trichodesmium were thought to be the primary sources of fixed N to the open ocean euphotic zone. It is now recognized that unicellular cyanobacteria are also important contributors, with members of the oligotrophic genus Crocosphaera being the only cultured examples. Herein we genetically and phenotypically characterize 10 strains isolated from the tropical Atlantic and North Pacific Oceans, and show that although all of the strains are highly similar at the genetic level, with the internal transcribed sequence (ITS) region sequence varying by ∼2 bp on average, there are many unexpected phenotypic differences between the isolates (e.g. cell size, temperature optima and range, extracellular material excretion and variability in rates of nitrogen fixation). However based on the observed sequence similarity, we propose that all of these isolates are members of the genus Crocosphaera (type strain Crocosphaera watsonii WH8501), and that the phenotypic diversity we see may reflect ecologically important variation relevant for modelling N2 fixation in the oligotrophic ocean.
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