Research ArticleOCEANOGRAPHY

Nutrient ratios in marine particulate organic matter are predicted by the population structure of well-adapted phytoplankton

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Science Advances  15 Jul 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 29, eaaw9371
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaw9371


A common assumption of a constant nitrogen-to-phosphorus ratio (N:P) of 16:1 in marine particulate organic matter (POM) appears to be invalidated by observations of major spatial variations in N:P. Two main explanations have been proposed. The first attributes the N:P variability to changes in the community composition of well-adapted phytoplankton. The second proposes that variability arises from physiological acclimation involving intracellular adjustments of nutrient allocation under nutrient deficiency. Using a model of phytoplankton physiology, observational datasets, and a review of laboratory culture results, we assess the mechanistic basis of N:P variability. We find that the taxonomic composition of well-adapted phytoplankton best explains observed variations in POM N:P. Furthermore, we show that acclimation to nutrient deficiency may be safely neglected when considering the effects of ecology on POM N:P. These findings provide insight into the controls on global variability in POM composition and average phytoplankton physiological performance in the oceans.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, so long as the resultant use is not for commercial advantage and provided the original work is properly cited.

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