The elemental composition of some marine phytoplankton

Tung Yuan Ho, Antonietta Quigg, Zoe V. Finkel, Allen J. Milligan, Kevin Wyman, Paul G. Falkowski, Francois M. M. Morel

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562 Scopus citations


We analyzed the cellular content of C, N, P, S, K, Mg, Ca, Sr, Fe, Mn, Zn, Cu, Co, Cd, and Mo in 15 marine eukaryotic phytoplankton species in culture representing the major marine phyla. All the organisms were grown under identical culture conditions, in a medium designed to allow rapid growth while minimizing precipitation of iron hydroxide. The cellular concentrations of all metals, phosphorus, and sulfur were determined by high-resolution inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (HR-ICPMS) and those of carbon and nitrogen by a carbon hydrogen nitrogen analyzer. Accuracy of the HR-ICPMS method was validated by comparison with data obtained with 55Fe radioactive tracer and by a planktonic reference material. The cellular quotas (normalized to P) of trace metals and major cations in the biomass varied by a factor of about 20 among species (except for Cd, which varied over two orders of magnitude) compared with factors of 5 to 10 for major nutrients. Green algae had generally higher C, N, Fe, Zn, and Cu quotas and lower S, K, Ca, Sr, Mn, Co, and Cd quotas than coccolithophores and diatoms. Co and Cd quotas were also lower in diatoms than in coccolithophores. Although trace element quotas are influenced by a variety of growth conditions, a comparison of our results with published data suggests that the measured compositions reflect chiefly the intrinsic (i.e. genetically encoded) trace element physiology of the individual species. Published field data on the composition of the planktonic biomass fall within the range of laboratory values and are generally close to the approximate extended Redfield formula given by the average stoichiometry of our model species (excluding the hard parts): (C124N16P 1S1.3K1.7Mg0.56Ca 0.5)1000Sr5.0Fe7.5Zn0.80 Cu0.38Co0.19Cd0.21Mo0.03 While clearly this elemental stoichiometry varies between species and, potentially, in response to changes in the chemistry of seawater, it provides a basis for examining how phytoplankton influence the relative distributions of the ensemble of major and trace elements in the ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1145-1159
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Phycology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Dec 2003

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Aquatic Science
  • Plant Science


  • Culture medium
  • Elemental composition
  • Marine phytoplankton
  • Nutrients
  • Quotas
  • Redfield ratio
  • Trace elements
  • Trace metals
  • Trace nutrients


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