Co-variation of metabolic rates and cell-size in coccolithophores

Coccolithophores are sensitive recorders of environmental change. The size of their coccosphere varies in the ocean along gradients of environmental conditions and provides a key for understanding the fate of this important phytoplankton group in the future ocean. But interpreting field changes in coccosphere size in terms of laboratory observations is hard, mainly because the marine signal reflects the response of multiple morphotypes to changes in a combination of environmental variables. In this paper I examine the large corpus of published laboratory experiments with coccolithophores looking for relations between environmental conditions, metabolic rates and cell size (a proxy for coccosphere size). I show that growth, photosynthesis, and to a lesser extent calcification, co-vary with cell size when pCO2, irradiance, temperature, nitrate, phosphate and iron conditions change. With the exception of phosphate and temperature, a change from limiting to non-limiting conditions always results in an increase in cell size. An increase in phosphate or temperature produces the opposite effect. The magnitude of the coccosphere size changes observed in the laboratory is comparable to that observed in the ocean. If the biological reasons behind the environment-metabolism-size link are understood, it will be possible to use coccosphere size changes in the modern ocean and in marine sediments to investigate the fate of coccolithophores in the future ocean. This reasoning can be extended to the size of coccoliths if, as recent experiments are starting to show, coccolith size reacts to environmental change proportionally to coccosphere size. I introduce a simple model that simulates the growth rate and the size of cells forced by nitrate and phosphate concentrations. By considering a simple rule that allocates the energy flow from nutrient acquisition to cell structure (biomass) and cell maturity (biological complexity, eventually leading to cell division), the model is able to reproduce the co-variation of growth rate and cell size observed in the laboratory when these nutrients become limiting. These results support ongoing efforts to interpret coccosphere and coccolith size measurements in the context of climate change.

Aloisi G., 2015. Co-variation of metabolic rates and cell-size in coccolithophores. Biogeosciences Discussions 12: 6215-6284. Article.

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