Adaptive evolution of a key phytoplankton species to ocean acidification

Ocean acidification, the drop in seawater pH associated with the ongoing enrichment of marine waters with carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning, may seriously impair marine calcifying organisms. Our present understanding of the sensitivity of marine life to ocean acidification is based primarily on short-term experiments, in which organisms are exposed to increased concentrations of CO2. However, phytoplankton species with short generation times, in particular, may be able to respond to environmental alterations through adaptive evolution. Here, we examine the ability of the world’s single most important calcifying organism, the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi, to evolve in response to ocean acidification in two 500-generation selection experiments. Specifically, we exposed E. huxleyi populations founded by single or multiple clones to increased concentrations of CO2. Around 500 asexual generations later we assessed their fitness. Compared with populations kept at ambient CO2 partial pressure, those selected at increased partial pressure exhibited higher growth rates, in both the single- and multiclone experiment, when tested under ocean acidification conditions. Calcification was partly restored: rates were lower under increased CO2 conditions in all cultures, but were up to 50% higher in adapted compared with non-adapted cultures. We suggest that contemporary evolution could help to maintain the functionality of microbial processes at the base of marine food webs in the face of global change.

Lohbeck K. T., Riebesell U. & Reusch T. B. H., in press. Adaptive evolution of a key phytoplankton species to ocean acidification. Nature Geoscience. doi: 10.1038/ngeo1441. Article (subscription required).

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