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Growth and grazing mortality of pico- and nano-phytoplankton and their role in the carbon export in the Sargasso Sea

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The ocean sequesters more than 25% of the carbon released by anthropogenic action every year, and oligotrophic oceans, such as the Sargasso Sea, are responsible for about 50% of the global carbon export. Pico- and nano-phytoplankton (cells < 5 µm),

The ocean sequesters more than 25% of the carbon released by anthropogenic action every year, and oligotrophic oceans, such as the Sargasso Sea, are responsible for about 50% of the global carbon export. Pico- and nano-phytoplankton (cells < 5 µm), mostly unicellular eukaryotes (protists) and cyanobacteria, dominate the primary production in the Sargasso Sea; however, little is known about their contribution to the export of carbon into the deep ocean via sinking particles. The overall goal of this study is to examine the link between growth and grazing rates of pico- and nano-phytoplankton and the carbon export in the Sargasso Sea. I investigate three aspects: 1) how microzooplankton grazing and physical forcing affect taxon-specific primary productivity in this region, 2) how these microbial trophic dynamics impact their contribution to the export of particulate matter, and 3) how much pico-phytoplankton, specifically the pico-cyanobacteria Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus, contribute to the carbon export. I collected seawater samples within the sunlit (euphotic) zone, and sinking particles at 150 m depth using particle traps in the Sargasso Sea during the winter and summer seasons of 2011 and 2012. I conducted dilution experiments to determine the growth and grazing rates of the pico- and nano-phytoplankton community, and used 454 pyrosequencing and quantitative Polymerase Chain Reaction to measure the relative and absolute contribution of these primary producers to the plankton community within the euphotic zone and in the sinking particles. I found that micrograzing controls taxon-specific primary production, and that microbial trophic dynamics impact directly the taxonomical composition of the sinking particles. For the first time, I was able to quantify clade-specific carbon export of pico-cyanobacteria and found that, despite their small size, these tiny primary producers are capable of sinking from the surface to the deeper oceans. However, their contribution to the carbon flux is often less than one tenth of their biomass contribution in the euphotic zone. Our study provides a comprehensive approach to better understand the role of pico- and nano-phytoplankton in the carbon cycle of oligotrophic oceans, and a baseline to study changes in the carbon export in future warmer oceans.

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Date Created
2016