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Surface accumulation of the nitrogen-fixing microbe Trichodesmium in the South Pacific Ocean.


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Courtesy of Pia Moisander

More than One: Long-Reining Microbe Controlling Ocean Nitrogen Shares the Throne

Scientists have been taking a close look at special types of bacteria that live in the ocean. These microbes may be tiny, but they play a big part in the nitrogen cycle.

The little round bacteria are able to change nitrogen from one form to another. They take nitrogen gas from the air and change it into the type of nitrogen that other organisms need to survive. Because these bacteria can change nitrogen, they are called “nitrogen-fixing bacteria”.

These nitrogen-fixing bacteria prefer to live in certain places in the ocean. Some types live in warm water of the tropics while other types prefer cool water found in the deep sea or near the poles. Since the nitrogen-fixing bacteria only live in certain parts of the ocean, nitrogen moves through the nitrogen cycle differently in different places.

The plants and algae in the ocean that do photosynthesis need nitrogen as a nutrient. These plants and algae are the start of food chains that include almost all life in the sea, except for the life around deep-sea vents. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria transform nitrogen from the air into a form that plants and algae can use, so they are very important for marine ecosystems.

Last modified May 21, 2010 by Lisa Gardiner.

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