Phytoplankton is a nineteenth century ecological construct for a biologically diverse group of pelagic photoautotrophs that share common metabolic functions but not evolutionary histories. In contrast to terrestrial plants, a major schism occurred in the evolution of the eukaryotic phytoplankton that gave rise to two major plastid superfamilies. The green superfamily appropriated chlorophyll b, whereas the red superfamily uses chlorophyll c as an accessory photosynthetic pigment. Fossil evidence suggests that the green superfamily dominated Palaeozoic oceans. However, after the end-Permian extinction, members of the red superfamily rose to ecological prominence. The processes responsible for this shift are obscure. Here we present an analysis of major nutrients and trace elements in 15 species of marine phytoplankton from the two superfamilies. Our results indicate that there are systematic phylogenetic differences in the two plastid types where macronutrient (carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus) stoichiometries primarily reflect ancestral pre-symbiotic host cell phenotypes, but trace element composition reflects differences in the acquired plastids. The compositional differences between the two plastid superfamilies suggest that changes in ocean redox state strongly influenced the evolution and selection of eukaryotic phytoplankton since the Proterozoic era.
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