Dissolved organic matter (DOM) release by phytoplankton in the contemporary and future ocean

The partitioning of organic matter (OM) between dissolved and particulate phases is an important factor in determining the fate of organic carbon in the ocean. Dissolved organic matter (DOM) release by phytoplankton is a ubiquitous process, resulting in 2–50% of the carbon fixed by photosynthesis leaving the cell. This loss can be divided into two components: passive leakage by diffusion across the cell membrane and the active exudation of DOM into the surrounding environment. At present there is no method to distinguish whether DOM is released via leakage or exudation. Most explanations for exudation remain hypothetical; as while DOM release has been measured extensively, there has been relatively little work to determine why DOM is released. Further research is needed to determine the composition of the DOM released by phytoplankton and to link composition to phytoplankton physiological status and environmental conditions. For example, the causes and physiology of phytoplankton cell death are poorly understood, though cell death increases membrane permeability and presumably DOM release. Recent work has shown that phytoplankton interactions with bacteria are important in determining both the amount and composition of the DOM released. In response to increasing CO2 in the atmosphere, climate change is creating increasingly stressful conditions for phytoplankton in the surface ocean, including relatively warm water, low pH, low nutrient supply and high light. As ocean physics and chemistry change, it is hypothesized that a greater proportion of primary production will be released directly by phytoplankton into the water as DOM. Changes in the partitioning of primary production between the dissolved and particulate phases will have bottom-up effects on ecosystem structure and function. There is a need for research to determine how these changes affect the fate of organic matter in the ocean, particularly the efficiency of the biological carbon pump.

Thornton D. C. O., 2014. Dissolved organic matter (DOM) release by phytoplankton in the contemporary and future ocean. European Journal of Phycology 49(1):20-46. Article (subscription required).

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