Marine microorganisms thrive under low levels of nitrogen (N). N cost minimization is a major selective pressure imprinted on open-ocean microorganism genomes. Here we show that amino-acid sequences from the open ocean are reduced in N, but increased in average mass compared with coastal-ocean microorganisms. Nutrient limitation exerts significant pressure on organisms supporting the trade-off between N cost minimization and increased average mass of amino acids that is a function of increased A+T codon usage. N cost minimization, especially of highly expressed proteins, reduces the total cellular N budget by 2.7-10%; this minimization in combination with reduction in genome size and cell size is an evolutionary adaptation to nutrient limitation. The biogeochemical and evolutionary precedent for these findings suggests that N limitation is a stronger selective force in the ocean than biosynthetic costs and is an important evolutionary strategy in resource-limited ecosystems.