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Ocean Plankton Ingest Twice as Much Carbon as Previously Assumed

Study upends long held notion based on Redfield Concept that plankton has same ratio of elements regardless of where they live.

March 18, 2013

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Photo courtesy Coral Oasis, Costa Mesa, Calif.
It has been a long held belief that plankton, the building blocks for all living things in the ocean, maintain the same level of elements regardless of where they are located in the world's oceans and seas. Researchers with the University of California, Irvine have dispelled that notion, with a published study saying that plankton located near the surface in warm waters are twice as more carbon rich than previously thought, and the scientists say that marine temperature fluctuations may be the cause of this double ingesting of carbon by Prochlorococcus and other microbes.

According to a press release put out by the university, the research at the southern California university has completely upended the common held notion, once championed by oceanographer Alfred Redfield, that plankton and the materials that they discharge from their bodies contains the same ratio ((106:16:1) of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus. The researchers found that there are different ratios of these elements at a range of marine locations.

"The Redfield concept remains a central tenet in ocean biology and chemistry. However, we clearly show that the nutrient content ratio in plankton is not constant and thus reject this longstanding central theory for ocean science," said lead author Adam Martiny, associate professor of Earth system science and ecology & evolutionary biology at UC Irvine. "Instead, we show that plankton follow a strong latitudinal pattern."


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Martiny and fellow researchers (Chau Pham, Francois Primeau, Jasper Vrugt and Keith Moore of UC Irvine; Simon Levin of Princeton University and UC Irvine; and Michael Lomas of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences) gathered large jars of seawater from seven locations around the world, including the Bering Sea, off the coast of Denmark in the North Atlantic, the Caribbean, and other locales. They then used a cell sorter on board the research vessel to analyze the water samples at the molecular level and then compared the data they collected with that of 18 other marine voyages and noted that Redfield's ratio of constant elements, a staple in textbooks and research since 1934 was inaccurate.  

Their work was funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the UCI Environment Institute.

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