Get access

Metal limitation of cyanobacterial N2 fixation and implications for the Precambrian nitrogen cycle


Corresponding author: Aubrey L. Zerkle. Tel.: (814) 865 6711; fax: (814) 863 7823; e-mail:


Nitrogen fixation is a critical part of the global nitrogen cycle, replacing biologically available reduced nitrogen lost by denitrification. The redox-sensitive trace metals Fe and Mo are key components of the primary nitrogenase enzyme used by cyanobacteria (and other prokaryotes) to fix atmospheric N2 into bioessential compounds. Progressive oxygenation of the Earth's atmosphere has forced changes in the redox state of the oceans through geologic time, from anoxic Fe-enriched waters in the Archean to partially sulfidic deep waters by the mid-Proterozoic. This development of ocean redox chemistry during the Precambrian led to fluctuations in Fe and Mo availability that could have significantly impacted the ability of prokaryotes to fix nitrogen. It has been suggested that metal limitation of nitrogen fixation and nitrate assimilation, along with increased rates of denitrification, could have resulted in globally reduced rates of primary production and nitrogen-starved oceans through much of the Proterozoic. To test the first part of this hypothesis, we grew N2-fixing cyanobacteria in cultures with metal concentrations reflecting an anoxic Archean ocean (high Fe, low Mo), a sulfidic Proterozoic ocean (low Fe, moderate Mo), and an oxic Phanerozoic ocean (low Fe, high Mo). We measured low rates of cellular N2 fixation under [Fe] and [Mo] estimated for the Archean ocean. With decreased [Fe] and higher [Mo] representing sulfidic Proterozoic conditions, N2 fixation, growth, and biomass C:N were similar to those observed with metal concentrations of the fully oxygenated oceans that likely developed in the Phanerozoic. Our results raise the possibility that an initial rise in atmospheric oxygen could actually have enhanced nitrogen fixation rates to near modern marine levels, providing that phosphate was available and rising O2 levels did not markedly inhibit nitrogenase activity.