Bacterioplankton growth

HELCOM Baltic Sea Environment Fact Sheet 2015, Published: 14 December 2015

Author: Siv Huseby1 and Johan Wikner1,2 

1Umeå Marine Science Center, Umeå University, SE-90571 Hörnefors, Sweden
The Swedish Institute for the Marine Environment, Unit at Umeå University, SE-905 71, Hörnefors, Sweden

Key Message

Bacterioplankton growth rate is an indicator of the decomposition of organic matter and thereby trophic status of the Sea. The pelagic bacterioplankton metabolism accounts for about half of the mineralization of organic matter and thereby pelagic oxygen consumption.

The bacterioplankton growth rate indicates good trophic status in the off-shore Bothnian Bay and Bothnian Sea. Deep water growth rates were only 50 % higher than at corresponding depths in the Atlantic Ocean, lacking excess enrichment. The decline that has earlier been reported has now ceased. During the last few years the growth rates has increased some and there is now no significant trends either increasing nor decreasing in the Bothnian Bay or Bothnian Sea.

Relevance of the indicator for describing developments of the environment

Bacterioplankton growth rate is an indicator of the nutrient status in aquatic environments. It is an estimate of the consumption of organic carbon in the ecosystem and therefore closely related to the biochemical oxygen demand in situ. Bacterioplankton growth rate thereby indicates the rate of oxygen consumption that may lead to oxygen deficiency in the water column, when exceeding oxygen supply. The bacterial growth rate indicator may be used in all aquatic environments.

Bacterioplankton growth rate is a relatively unambiguous indicator of the flux of organic matter in the pelagic ecosystem (Billen, et al. 1990). Even if the relationship between the factors specific growth rate and abundance may vary, their product representing biomass production reflects the substrate requirement of the bacterial community. Density limitation (i.e. competition) or temperature does therefore not directly appear to control the bacterial community biomass production. This agrees with empirical observations that bacterial growth rate over larger scales correlate with trophic status of a system (Cole, et al. 1988, Billen, et al. 1990) , and at smaller scales between water layers and seasons (Wikner and Hagström 1999).


The bacteria growth in the Botnian Bay and Bothnian Sea deep water (40-100m) show no significant trends for the years 1994-2014 (Table 1).

The bacterioplankton growth was on average 38 nmol C dm-3 day-1 in the Bothnian Bay, while being 12 % higher in the Bothnian Sea (ANOVA, total df=654, p=0.040). The higher value in the Bothnian Sea was in accordance with the expected higher trophic status of this basin. Compared to the difference in phytoplankton production between the basins this difference was however low.

The ability of bacterial community growth to measure changes in nutrient supply was shown by the seasonally recurrent variation in the deep water by a factor of 3 (data not shown). Highest values occurred during the summer months when also the highest sedimentation is expected.

The bacterioplankton growth in the Bothnian Sea corresponded to a bacterial oxygen consumption of 1.3 µmol O2 dm-3 day-1, assuming a bacterial growth to growth efficiency function according to del Giorgio and Cole (del Giorgio and Cole 1998). The oxygen consumption could be compared to the average oxygen concentrations of 370 and 235 µmol dm-3, respectively, for the Bothnian Bay and Bothnian Sea (mean values in deepwater 2011-2014). Assuming bacterioplankton to account for half of the total respiration (Robinson and le B Williams 2005), average daily oxygen consumption would correspond to 0,67 and 1,14% day -1, respectively.


The bacterioplankton growth rate in the deep water of the Bothnian Bay and Bothnian Sea was at a level assessed as representing good conditions. This indicates that the export of organic matter by sedimentation to the deep water occur within allowable limits. This quality factor does therefore not support that these basins are disturbed by eutrophication.

The status classification is based on that the level of bacterioplankton growth found in the Bothnian Bay and Sea are comparable to rates at similar depth of oceanic water (Dufour and Torreton 1996). Another way to compare this is by absolute rates of total oxygen consumption calculated from the bacterial growth (assuming 50% due to bacterial growth). The level in the Gulf of Bothnia  was 50 % higher than the mean oxygen consumption measured at the same depth interval in the ocean (Robinson and le B Williams 2005).  Higher productivity, and thereby oxygen consumption, is expected in coastal waters compared to oceanic, so it´s not obvious that the higher rates in the Gulf of Bothnia are above allowable limits.

The lack of significant decrease of oxygen levels in the Bothnian Bay since the beginning of the 1970´s, corroborate that oxygen supply to the deep water has been and remained sufficient to account for total respiration. This supports that the deep water bacterial growth is within allowable limits. Decline in oxygen concentration that has been observed in the Bothnian Sea during the past 40 years, however, makes the classification more difficult for this basin. It seems unlikely that the only 12% higher growth rate in the Bothnian Sea than Bay alone could explain the observed oxygen decline. Also a negative rather than positive correlation between bacterial growth and oxygen decline is expected (i.e. both currently decline). Other factors like import of oxygen deficient water from the Baltic Proper or increased stratification may rather explain the development of oxygen concentrations in the Bothnian Sea.

A management consequence of the low rates observed is that it will be extraordinarily difficult to reduce them further by nutrient reductions. This would also require a questionable aim to achieve an oxygen consumption level similar to those found in the Atlantic ocean at corresponding depth.


Data description


The bacterioplankton growth estimates are based on uptake of the nucleotide thymidine into the DNA (i.e. chromosome) of the bacteria. The original method is published in international scientific journals and has been used in many marine research studies since the beginning of the 1980´s. The method has been part of the Helsinki commission guidelines for a longer period of time (Baltic Sea Environment Proceedings No. 27D) and is recently re-introduced into the COMBINE manual part C (Annex C-12).

Values were averaged for the depths sampled within the water layer chosen (median n=4). Typically 8-20 samplings distributed over the year has been performed. Data is taken from the Swedish national marine monitoring supported by the Swedish Agency for Marine and Water Management and the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency.

 BSEFS_Bacterioplankton_2015_Figure 3.jpg

Figure 3. Sampling stations in the Gulf of Bothnia.


Missing values were replaced by linear interpolation and averaged to yield monthly time series, as required for the seasonal decomposition. About 20% of the values in the analyzed time series were interpolated. Time series were seasonally decomposed by a multiplicative model and endpoints weighted by 0.5 in the software SPSS® v.20.

Time series were typically serially autocorrelated by one lag and therefore analyzed for trends by first order autoregression (SPSS®). It uses a least-square technique where errors follow a first order autoregression. A non-parametric test for analysis for trends were also performed using Multitest, an Excel-based program for Mann Kendall tests for monotone trends. Results are not shown, but did not give any significant time trends.

To show the general trends in the time series a negative exponential smoother was applied. This is a local smoothing technique using polynomial regression and weights computed from the Gaussian density function (SigmaPlot v. 11.0®).

The power of the time series was estimated from the standard deviation of the autoregression (Root Mean Square Error), the non-centrality parameter and the non-central t-distribution. As a guidance to assess significant changes, a difference of 25 % in 2 years is expected to be detected with 80 % probability.

The difference between the Bothnian Bay and Bothnian Sea was determined from marginal means in an ANOVA on natural logarithm transformed bacterial growth, where area and year were fixed factors, and month a co-variate.


BSEFS_Bacterioplankton_2015_Figure 1.jpg

Figure 1. The bacterioplankton growth rate below the stratified layer in the Bothnian Bay show no significant trend since 1994. A negative exponential smoother is shown together with seasonally adjusted data. The 3 x SD lines represent the upper and lower 99% confidence limits of the smoothed time series, suggested as action limits for the quality factor. Year ticks are located at the 1 st of January each year.

BSEFS_Bacterioplankton_2015_Figure 2.jpg

Figure 2. The bacterioplankton growth rate below the stratified layer in the Bothnian Sea show no significant trend since 1994. Lines defined as in figure 1.


Table 1. Bacterial community growth below the pycnocline level show no significant trends in the Bothnian Sea for the periods tested. The 95 % confidence interval (C. I.) of the trend is shown. The significance (α) shows the risk to be wrong if stating that there is a trend, which should be below 0,05 for a statistical significant statement. The series mean of bacterial growth rate is shown.
Sea areaStationPeriodTrend±95% C.I.αYearsBacterial growth rate
   (% year-1)(% year-1)(-) (nmol C dm-3 day-1)
Bothnian BayA52000-20140,05,50,9441536
Bothnian BayA132000-20141,83,70,3251540
Bothnian SeaC1 and C32000-2014-1,54,20,4801545
Bothnian SeaC142000-2014-2,44,90,2831541
Bothnian BayA131994-20140,32,00,7482140
Bothnian SeaC1 and C31994-2014-0,61,80,4922144


Billen, G., P. Servais and S. Becquevort. 1990. Dynamics of bacterioplankton in oligotrophic and eutrophic aquatic environments: bottom-up or top-down control ? 207:37-42

Cole, J. J., S. Findlay and M. L. Pace. 1988. Bacterial production in fresh and saltwater ecosystems: a cross systems overview. 43:1-10

del Giorgio, P. A. and J. J. Cole. 1998. Bacterial growth efficiency in natural aquatic systems. 29:503-541

Dufour, P. H. and J. P. Torreton. 1996. Bottom-up and top-down control of bacterioplankton from eutrophic to oligotrophic sites in the tropical northeastern Atlantic Ocean. 43:1305-1320

Robinson, C. and P. J. le B Williams. 2005. Respiration and it´s measurement in surface marine waters. 1:147-180

Wikner, J. and Å. Hagström. 1999. Bacterioplankton intra-annual variability at various allochthonous loading: Importance of hydrography and competition. 20:245-260

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