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There is considerable debate about the benefits and trade-offs for colony formation in a major marine nitrogen fixer, Trichodesmium. To quantitatively analyze the trade-offs, we developed a metabolic model based on carbon fluxes to compare the performance of Trichodesmium colonies and free trichomes under different scenarios. Despite reported reductions in carbon fixation and nitrogen fixation rates for colonies relative to free trichomes, we found that model colonies can outperform individual cells in several cases. The formation of colonies can be advantageous when respiration rates account for a high proportion of the carbon fixation rate. Negative external influence on vital rates, such as mortality due to predation or micronutrient limitations, can also create a net benefit for colony formation relative to individual cells. In contrast, free trichomes also outcompete colonies in many scenarios, such as when respiration rates are equal for both colonies and individual cells or when there is a net positive external influence on rate processes (i.e., optimal environmental conditions regarding light and temperature or high nutrient availability). For both colonies and free trichomes, an increase in carbon fixation relative to nitrogen fixation rates would increase their relative competitiveness. These findings suggest that the formation of colonies in Trichodesmium might be linked to specific environmental and ecological circumstances. Our results provide a road map for empirical studies and models to evaluate the conditions under which colony formation in marine phytoplankton can be sustained in the natural environment.

Publication Title, e.g., Journal

Microbiology Spectrum





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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.