Identification of factors constraining nitrate assimilation in Lake Superior, Laurentian Great Lakes

John A. Berges, Yuelu Jiang, Robert W. Sterner, George S. Bullerjahn, Natalia A. Ivanikova, Robert M.L. McKay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Despite a well-documented rise in nitrate concentration over the past century, Lake Superior has retained an oligotrophic character. In part, this status results from physical attributes of the lake including low temperatures and prolonged isothermy, resulting in deep-mixing and light limitation which constrain primary production. Lake Superior is also phosphorus deficient which limits phytoplankton growth. We conducted large (20 l) volume factorial bioassay experiments to assess the influence of light and nutrients (P, Fe) on nitrate assimilation by a Lake Superior chlorophyte alga. Bioassays seeded with the chlorophyte yielded a strong response to light resulting in the rapid depletion of nitrate. High light resulted in higher activities of the key N-assimilation enzyme nitrate reductase (NR) and increased algal biomass compared to low light treatments. NR activity was highly correlated with rates of nitrate incorporation in bioassays and field surveys suggesting that NR occupies a critical place in nitrate metabolism. In bioassays, the addition of nutrients (P, Fe) only slightly increased the rate at which nitrate became depleted. Parallel trials using a luminescent cyanobacterial bioreporter confirmed the lack of response by added nutrients supporting light as an important factor in constraining nitrate assimilation by phytoplankton in the lake.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-94
Number of pages14
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jun 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under grant numbers OCE-0327738, OCE-0352274 (R.M.L.M. and G.S.B.), and OCE-0352291(R.W.S). The authors are grateful to the Captain and crew of the R/V Blue Heron for their assistance with the collection of samples. We also extend thanks to Michael Twiss, Christel Hassler, Rob Sherrell, Jason Agnich, and Sandra Brovold who provided assistance with shipboard sampling and analysis. HPLC analysis was provided by the Center for Hydro-Optics and Remote Sensing, San Diego State University. We thank Lauren Simmons for assistance with CHEMTAX analyses of HPLC data. Ben Beall provided assistance with figure preparation.


  • Lake Superior
  • Light
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrate reductase
  • Phytoplankton


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