• Open Access

Measuring carbon and N2 fixation in field populations of colonial and free-living unicellular cyanobacteria using nanometer-scale secondary ion mass spectrometry1



Unicellular cyanobacteria are now recognized as important to the marine N and C cycles in open ocean gyres, yet there are few direct in situ measurements of their activities. Using a high-resolution nanometer scale secondary ion mass spectrometer (nanoSIMS), single cell N2 and C fixation rates were estimated for unicellular cyanobacteria resembling N2 fixer Crocosphaera watsonii. Crocosphaera watsonii-like cells were observed in the subtropical North Pacific gyre (22°45′ N, 158°0′ W) as 2 different phenotypes: colonial and free-living. Colonies containing 3–242 cells per colony were observed and cell density in colonies increased with incubation time. Estimated C fixation rates were similarly high in both phenotypes and unexpectedly for unicellular cyanobacteria 85% of the colonial cells incubated during midday were also enriched in 15N above natural abundance. Highest 15N enrichment and N2 fixation rates were found in cells incubated overnight where up to 64% of the total daily fixed N in the upper surface waters was attributed to both phenotypes. The colonial cells retained newly fixed C in a sulfur-rich matrix surrounding the cells and often cells of both phenotypes possessed areas (<1 nm) of enriched 15N and 13C resembling storage granules. The nanoSIMS imaging of the colonial cells also showed evidence for a division of N2 and C fixation activity across the colony where few individual cells (<34%) in a given colony were enriched in both 15N and 13C above the colony average. Our results provide new insights into the ecophysiology of unicellular cyanobacteria.