Sci Rep. 2022 Oct 22;12(1):17784. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-22382-y.
Nitrogen fixers, or diazotrophs, play a key role in the nitrogen and carbon cycle of the world oceans. Diazotrophs are capable of utilising atmospheric dinitrogen which is a competitive advantage over generally faster growing ordinary phytoplankton in nitrogen-depleted conditions in the sun-lit surface ocean. In this study we argue that additional competitive advantages must be at play in order to explain the dynamics and distribution of diazotrophs in the global oceans. Backed by growing published evidence we test the effects of preferential grazing (where zooplankton partly avoids diazotrophs) and high-affinity diazotrophic phosphorus uptake in an Earth System Model of intermediate complexity. Our results illustrate that these fundamentally different model assumptions result in a very similar match to observation-based estimates of nitrogen fixation while, at the same time, they imply very different trajectories into our warming future. The latter applies to biomass, fixation rates as well as to the ratio of the two. We conclude that a more comprehensive understanding of the competition between ordinary and diazotrophic phytoplankton will reduce uncertainties in model-based projections of the oceanic N cycle.