MEPS 193:295-303 (2000)  -  doi:10.3354/meps193295

Carbon isotope fractionation by a marine diatom: dependence on the growth-rate-limiting resource

Ulf Riebesell*, Steffen Burkhardt, Anke Dauelsberg, Bernd Kroon

Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Postfach 12 01 61, 27515 Bremerhaven, Germany

ABSTRACT: The large temporal and spatial variability in carbon isotope fractionation of marine phytoplankton (ε p) is thought to reflect differences in environmental conditions. Meaningful interpretation of this variability requires an understanding of the processes responsible for phytoplankton isotope fractionation. While numerous factors have been suggested to potentially influence ε p, recent theoretical and experimental evidence has emphasized the primary role of phytoplankton growth rate (µ) and CO2 concentration ([CO2aq]) in controlling ε p. Experimental examination of the relationship of ε p with µ and [CO2aq] in studies using different experimental approaches, however, has yielded inconsistent results. Here we directly compare new and previously published data on ε p as a function of CO2 concentration and growth rate for the marine diatom Phaeodactylum tricornutum. When grown under nitrogen-deficient conditions (nitrate-limited chemostat), ε p of P. tricornutum decreases with increasing growth rate. In contrast, under N-replete conditions ε p values are considerably lower at comparable growth rates and CO2 concentrations and are largely insensitive to a 3-fold increase in growth rate due to increasing photon flux density. In both experimental approaches, ε p shows a relatively small CO2 sensitivity in the range of CO2 concentrations naturally occurring in the ocean (8 to 25 µmol kg-1). Below ca 5 µmol CO2 kg-1, a strong decline in ε p with decreasing [CO2aq] is observed. The apparent difference in ε p responses between nitrate-limited and light-controlled cultures of P. tricornutum suggests a principal difference in carbon acquisition for different growth-rate-limiting resources. A mechanistic explanation is proposed and potential implications for the interpretation of phytoplankton carbon isotope fractionation are discussed.

KEY WORDS: δ13C · Isotope fractionation · CO2 · Phaeodactylum tricornutum · Growth limitation

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