Planktonic heterotrophic prokaryotes make up the largest living biomass and process most organic matter in the ocean. Determining when and where the biomass and activity of heterotrophic prokaryotes are controlled by resource availability (bottom-up), predation and viral lysis (top-down) or temperature will help in future carbon cycling predictions. We conducted an extensive survey across subtropical and tropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans during the Malaspina 2010 Global Circumnavigation Expedition and assessed indices for these three types of controls at 109 stations (mostly from the surface to 4,000 m depth). Temperature control was approached by the apparent activation energy in eV (ranging from 0.46 to 3.41), bottom-up control by the slope of the log-log relationship between biomass and production rate (ranging from −0.12 to 1.09) and top-down control by an index that considers the relative abundances of heterotrophic nanoflagellates and viruses (ranging from 0.82 to 4.83). We conclude that temperature becomes dominant (i.e. activation energy >1.5 eV) within a narrow window of intermediate values of bottom-up (0.3–0.6) and top-down 0.8–1.2) controls. A pervasive latitudinal pattern of decreasing temperature regulation towards the Equator, regardless of the oceanic basin, suggests that the impact of global warming on marine microbes and their biogeochemical function will be more intense at higher latitudes. Our analysis predicts that 1°C ocean warming will result in increased biomass of heterotrophic prokaryoplankton only in waters with <26°C of mean annual surface temperature.
An extensive survey in tropical and subtropical waters shows that control by temperature of heterotrophic prokaryotes only prevails within a narrow window opened at moderate bottom-up and top-down controls. We also unveil a conspicuous latitudinal pattern of decreasing temperature regulation towards the Equator. Altogether, our study hypothesizes that the impact of global warming of the standing stocks and productivity of marine microbes and their biogeochemical function will be more intense at high than at low latitudes.