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A new view of oceanic phytoplankton
Date:3/10/2009

esult of changes in the marine habitat due to greenhouse gas warming.

Van Mooy and colleagues discovered that phytoplankton in the open ocean may be adapting to the low levels of phosphorus by making a fundamental change to their cell structure. Rather than synthesizing the phosphorus-requiring phospholipids for use in their membranes, the plants appear to be using non-phosphorus containing "substitute lipids" that use the nearly unlimited element sulfur also found in seawater instead of phosphorus. These substitute sulfolipids apparently allow the plants to continue to grow and survive under conditions of phosphorus stress, a unique strategy for life in the sea.

To test the generality of this biochemical strategy, the authors compared the response of the phytoplankton communities in different ocean basins that experience varying levels of phosphorus stress. In regions where phosphorus stress is extreme, such as the area dubbed the Sargasso Sea in the central North Atlantic Ocean, phospholipids were nearly nonexistent. By comparison, in the South Pacific Ocean, where sufficient phosphorus exists, there were large amounts of phospholipids. The region around Hawaii was intermediate, which is consistent with the long-term data sets from the Hawaii Ocean Time-series program showing that phosphorus is still measurable but is disappearing from the surface waters at an alarming rate. One prediction from this initial study is that the phytoplankton in Hawaiian waters are likely to become more like those in the Sargasso Sea over time as phosphorus supplies dwindle further. To date, the ability to synthesize substitute lipids appears to be restricted to the phytoplankton; heterotrophic bacteria and other organisms must have a different strategy for survival, or none at all. This has implications for the future structure, biodiversity and function of Hawaiian marine ecosystems, including fish production and long-term carbon dioxide sequestration.


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Contact: Tara Hicks Johnson
hickst@hawaii.edu
808-956-3151
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Source:Eurekalert  

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