Surface waters of the subtropical Sargasso Sea contain dissolved inorganic phosphate (DIP) concentrations of 0.2 to 1.0 nanomolar, which are sufficiently low to result in phosphorus control of primary production. The DIP concentrations in this area (which receives high inputs of iron-rich dust from arid regions of North Africa) are one to two orders of magnitude lower than surface levels in the North Pacific (where eolian iron inputs are much lower and water column denitrification is much more substantial). These data indicate a severe relative phosphorus depletion in the Atlantic. We hypothesize that nitrogen versus phosphorus limitation of primary production in the present-day ocean may be closely linked to iron supply through control of dinitrogen (N2) fixation, an iron-intensive metabolic process. Although the oceanic phosphorus inventory may set the upper limit for the total amount of organic matter produced in the ocean over geological time scales, at any instant in geological time, oceanic primary production may fall below this limit because of a persistent insufficient iron supply. By controlling N2 fixation, iron may control not only nitrogen versus phosphorus limitation but also carbon fixation and export stoichiometry and hence biological sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
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