Ecophysiological basis of spatiotemporal patterns in picophytoplankton pigments in the global ocean

Sornsiri Phongphattarawat, Heather A. Bouman, Michael W. Lomas, Shubha Sathyendranath, Glen A. Tarran, Osvaldo Ulloa, Mikhail V. Zubkov

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Information on the intracellular content and functional diversity of phytoplankton pigments can provide valuable insight on the ecophysiological state of primary producers and the flow of energy within aquatic ecosystems. Combined global datasets of analytical flow cytometry (AFC) cell counts and High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) pigment concentrations were used to examine vertical and seasonal variability in the ratios of phytoplankton pigments in relation to indices of cellular photoacclimation. Across all open ocean datasets, the weight-to-weight ratio of photoprotective to photosynthetic pigments showed a strong depth dependence that tracked the vertical decline in the relative availability of light. The Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study (BATS) dataset revealed a general increase in surface values of the relative concentrations of photoprotective carotenoids from the winter-spring phytoplankton communities dominated by low-light acclimated eukaryotic microalgae to the summer and early autumn communities dominated by high-light acclimated picocyanobacteria. In Prochlorococcus-dominated waters, the vertical decline in the relative contribution of photoprotective pigments to total pigment concentration could be attributed in large part to changes in the cellular content of photosynthetic pigments (PSP) rather than photoprotective pigments (PPP), as evidenced by a depth-dependent increase of the intracellular concentration of the divinyl chlorophyll-a (DVChl-a) whilst the intracellular concentration of the PPP zeaxanthin remained relatively uniform with depth. The ability of Prochlorococcus cells to adjust their DVChl-a cell-1 over a large gradient in light intensity was reflected in more highly variable estimates of carbon-to-Chl-a ratio compared to those reported for other phytoplankton groups. This cellular property is likely the combined result of photoacclimatory changes at the cellular level and a shift in dominant ecotypes. Developing a mechanistic understanding of sources of variability in pigmentation of picocyanobacteria is critical if the pigment markers and bio-optical properties of these cells are to be used to map their biogeography and serve as indicators of photoacclimatory state of subtropical phytoplankton communities more broadly. It would also allow better assessment of effects on, and adaptability of phytoplankton communities in the tropical/subtropical ocean due to climate change.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1112177
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers in Marine Science
Publication statusPublished - 14 Feb 2023


  • picocyanobacteria
  • Prochlorococcus, pigments
  • photoacclimation
  • phytoplankton
  • carbon-to-chlorophyll ration


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