They discovered that eukaryotic phytoplankton actually fix significant amounts of carbon, contributing up to 44% of the total, despite being considerably less abundant than cyanobacteria. "This is most likely because eukaryotic phytoplankton cells, although small, are bigger than cyanobacteria, allowing them to assimilate more fixed carbon," says Zubkov.
Two groups of eukaryotes were distinguished, 'EukA' cells being more abundant but smaller than 'EukB' cells. Molecular techniques revealed that EukB largely comprised photosynthetic organisms called prymnesiophytes, most of which have never been cultured in the laboratory. Many of these are probably previously unknown species.
"Prymnesiophytes accounted for up to 38 per cent of total primary production in the subtropical and tropical northeast Atlantic Ocean," says Scanlan: "This suggests that they play a key role in oceanic carbon fixation, but this needs to be confirmed by widespread sampling from the world's oceans."
Zubkov recently showed that small eukaryotic phytoplankton can obtain carbon by feeding on bacteria, supplementing carbon fixed through photosynthesis.
It is likely that some of the organic carbon of prymnesiophytes and other eukaryotic phytoplankton is eventually exported from the photic zone to the deep ocean, rather than being returned to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide.
"Given their clear importance, it is crucial that we now go on to understand the factors controlling growth of small eukaryotes in the oceans," concludes Scanlan.
|Contact: Dr. Rory Howlett|
National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (UK)