Environment How the Great Barrier Reef gets its nitrogen fix

How the Great Barrier Reef gets its nitrogen fix

Scientists have long wondered how coral reefs can be so biologically active when the water around them is relatively low in essential elements such as nitrogen.

In 2014, a UTS-led research voyage found the species in abundance.

But with the benefit of new molecular biological techniques, they were also able to identify other important species of bacteria that could help explain how coral reefs remain areas with such high biological productivity.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria convert nitrogen gases, which are abundant but unavailable to most organisms, into forms that allow the nitrogen to be incorporated into natural food chains.

The research team was led by scientists from the Climate Change Cluster (C3) at the University of Technology Sydney, along with collaborators from UNSW Sydney and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

It conducted a study across waters spanning 10 different locations within the Great Barrier Reef.

The results of the survey provide the first quantitative evidence for the importance of nitrogen fixation in the reef’s waters.

“Nitrogen fixation by marine bacteria might alleviate nitrogen limitation within this important ecosystem by introducing new nitrogen into the water column,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Lauren Messer.

“This new nitrogen will then be available to support the growth and production of phytoplankton in the region under times of nitrogen stress.”

Dr Messer said that new molecular techniques allow scientists to target the bacterial genes responsible for facilitating nitrogen fixation and to identify which bacteria are capable of this process.

Dr Messer’s PhD supervisor, Associate Professor Justin Seymour, said the findings would inform future research efforts.

“Lauren’s research has successfully united a suite of sophisticated approaches to deliver unprecedented new insights into the biological and chemical processes that underpin the function of one of the planet’s most important and threatened marine ecosystems,” he said.

Read more about this intriguing study here. Story credit: UTS newsroom.

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