Differential response of equatorial Pacific phytoplankton to iron fertilization

Cavender-Bares, Kent K., Elizabeth L. Mann, Sallie W. Chisholm, Michael E. Ondrusek, Robert R. Bidigare

Limnol. Oceanogr., 44(2), 1999, 237-246 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.1999.44.2.0237

ABSTRACT: Recent unenclosed iron-fertilization experiments in the equatorial Pacific Ocean have shown that phytoplankton biomass can be increased substantially by the addition of iron. Analyses of size-fractionated chlorophyll indicate that much of the increase during the most recent fertilization experiment, IronEx II, occurred in the >10-um size fraction. We used flow cytometry, combined with taxon-specific pigment measurements by high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), to analyze the responses of five different groups of phytoplankton: Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus, ultraplankton, nanoplankton, and pennate diatoms. These results are unique in the suite of measurements from the IronEx studies in that they simultaneously examine individual cell properties, which are grazer independent, and population dynamics, which reflect the net result of growth and grazing. Our results show that the overall increase of chlorophyll a (Chl a) in the patch was due in part to increases in chlorophyll content per cell and in part to increases in cell numbers of specific groups. Cellular fluorescence was stimulated by iron addition in all five groups to a qualitatively similar degree and was correlated with taxon specific changes in cellular pigments. In terms of net cell growth, however, these groups responded very differently. The groups that dominated the community before the addition of iron increased at most twofold in cell number; Prochlorococcus actually decreased. In contrast, the initially rare pennate diatoms increased 15-fold in number by the peak of the iron-induced bloom. Within 1 week, this differential response led to a dramatic change in the phytoplankton community structure, from one dominated by picoplankton to one dominated by large diatoms. It is not known whether this shift would be sustained over extended periods of fertilization, a response that would ultimately change the structure of the food web.

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