Phenotypic evolution and adaptive strategies in marine phytoplankton (Coccolithophores)

University dissertation from Uppsala : Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis

Abstract: Coccolithophores are biogeochemically important marine algae that interact with the carbon cycle through photosynthesis (CO2 sink), calcification (CO2 source) and burial of carbon into oceanic sediments. The group is considered susceptible to the ongoing climate perturbations, in particular to ocean acidification, temperature increase and nutrient limitation. The aim of this thesis was to investigate the adaptation of coccolithophores to environmental change, with the focus on temperature stress and nutrient limitation. The research was conducted in frame of three approaches: experiments testing the physiological response of coccolithophore species Helicosphaera carteri and Coccolithus pelagicus to phosphorus limitation, field studies on coccolithophore life-cycles with a method comparison and an investigation of the phenotypic evolution of the coccolithophore genus Helicosphaera over the past 15 Ma. Experimental results show that the physiology and morphology of large coccolithophores are sensitive to phosphorus limitation, and that the adaptation to low-nutrient conditions can lead to a decrease in calcification rates. Field studies have contributed to our understanding of coccolithophore life cycles, revealing complex ecological patterns within the Mediterranean community which are seemingly regulated by seasonal, temperature-driven environment changes. In addition, the high-throughput sequencing (HTS) molecular method was shown to provide overall good representation of coccolithophore community composition. Finally, the study on Helicosphaera evolution showed that adaptation to decreasing CO2 in higher latitudes involved cell and coccolith size decrease, whereas the adaptation in tropical ecosystems also included a physiological decrease in calcification rates in response to nutrient limitation. This thesis advanced our understanding of coccolithophore adaptive strategies and will improve our predictions on the fate of the group under ongoing climate change.