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How do phytoplankton survive a scarcity of a critical nutrient? New study up-ends conventional wisdom

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Posted June 6, 2014
How do phytoplankton survive a scarcity of a critical nutrient?
To conduct their work, the scientists collected water samples at different depths of the ocean during two cruises from the relatively nutrient-rich waters off Woods Hole to the phosphorus-starved subtropical Sargasso Sea near Bermuda in 2008 and 2012. Pictured here are corresponding author WHOI associate scientist Benjamin Van Mooy (orange helmet) and research assistant Justin Ossolinski (blue helmet) working with crew members of the R/V Knorr to deploy a sediment net-trap used in the study. Credit: (Photo courtesy of Ben Van Mooy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Phytoplankton—tiny, photosynthetic organisms—are essential to life on Earth, supplying us with roughly half the oxygen we breathe. Like all other life forms, phytoplankton require the element phosphorus to carry out critical cellular activity, but in some parts of the world’s ocean, P is in limited supply. How do phytoplankton survive when phosphorus is difficult to find?

 

Phytoplankton can alter their biochemical make-up according to the availability of nutrients in the water. When  (P) is particularly abundant in the water, phytoplankton produce and store a form of P called polyphosphate, or poly-P, to use later during times when P is less abundant. The accepted wisdom has been that poly-P was would be found stored by micro-organisms in waters where P was abundant and would be scarce in waters depleted of P. But when a group of researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences tested that notion, conducting the most comprehensive survey of poly-P content and distribution in the western North Atlantic, what they found was surprising.

Read more at: Phys.org

 

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