Stoichiometric flexibility in diverse aquatic heterotrophic bacteria is coupled to differences in cellular phosphorus quotas

Casey M. Godwin, James B. Cotner

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It is frequently presumed that heterotrophic bacteria from aquatic environments have low carbon (C) content, high phosphorus (P) content, and maintain homeostasis at low C:P in their biomass. Dissolved and particulate organic matter from primary producers in terrestrial and aquatic environments typically has high C:P ratios, suggesting that heterotrophic bacteria consuming this resource experience stoichiometric imbalance in C and P. The strength of elemental homeostasis is important for understanding how heterotrophic bacteria couple C and P cycles in response to environmental change, yet these generalizations are based upon data from only a few species that might not represent the physiology of bacteria in freshwaters. However, recent research has indicated that some strains of bacteria isolated from freshwaters have flexible C:P stoichiometry and can acclimate to changes in resource C:P. Although it is apparent that strains differ in their biomass C:P and flexibility, the basis for these characteristics has not been explained. We evaluated biomass C:P homeostasis in 24 strains of bacteria isolated from temperate lakes using a uniform relative growth rate in chemostats. Overall, the strains exhibited a range of homeostatic regulation from strong homeostasis to highly flexible biomass stoichiometry, but strains that were isolated using P-rich media formulations were more homeostatic than strains isolated using P-poor media. Strains exhibiting homeostatic biomass C:P had high cellular C and P content and showed little morphological change between C and P limitation. In contrast, stoichiometrically flexible strains had low P quotas and increased their C quotas and cell size under P limitation. Because stoichiometric flexibility is closely coupled to absolute P content in bacteria, anthropogenic inputs of P could lead to prevalence of more homeostatic bacteria, reducing the ability of natural assemblages to buffer changes in the availability of P and organic C.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number159
JournalFrontiers in Microbiology
Issue numberFEB
StatePublished - 2015

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Godwin and Cotner.


  • Aquatic heterotrophic bacteria
  • Cell morphometry
  • Chemostats
  • Ecological stoichiometry
  • Element quotas
  • Lakes
  • Phosphorus content


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