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Distributions of phytoplankton carbohydrate, protein and lipid in the world oceans from satellite ocean colour

The ISME Journalvolume 12pages14571472 (2018) | Download Citation


Energy value of phytoplankton regulates the growth of higher trophic species, affecting the tropic balance and sustainability of marine food webs. Therefore, developing our capability to estimate and monitor, on a global scale, the concentrations of macromolecules that determine phytoplankton energy value, would be invaluable. Reported here are the first estimates of carbohydrate, protein, lipid, and overall energy value of phytoplankton in the world oceans, using ocean-colour data from satellites. The estimates are based on a novel bio-optical method that utilises satellite-derived bio-optical fingerprints of living phytoplankton combined with allometric relationships between phytoplankton cells and cellular macromolecular contents. The annually averaged phytoplankton energy value, per cubic metre of sub-surface ocean, varied from less than 0.1 kJ in subtropical gyres, to 0.5–1.0 kJ in parts of the equatorial, northern and southern latitudes, and rising to >10 kJ in certain coastal and optically complex waters. The annually averaged global stocks of carbohydrate, protein and lipid were 0.044, 0.17 and 0.108 gigatonnes, respectively, with monthly stocks highest in September and lowest in June, over 1997–2013. The fractional contributions of phytoplankton size classes e.g., picoplankton, nanoplankton and microplankton to surface concentrations and global stocks of macromolecules varied considerably across marine biomes classified as Longhurst provinces. Among these provinces, the highest annually averaged surface concentrations of carbohydrate, protein, and lipid were in North-East Atlantic Coastal Shelves, whereas, the lowest concentration of carbohydrate or lipid were in North Atlantic Tropical Gyral, and that of protein was in North Pacific Subtropical Gyre West. The regional accuracy of the estimates and their sensitivity to satellite inputs are quantified from the bio-optical model, which show promise for possible operational monitoring of phytoplankton energy value from satellite ocean colour. Adequate in situ measurements of macromolecules and improved retrievals of inherent optical properties from high-resolution satellite images, would be required to validate these estimates at local sites, and to further improve their accuracy in the world oceans.

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This work was a part of SR’s ongoing research at the University of Reading and was supported by an International Exchanges Award from the Royal Society of London. The satellite data were obtained freely from the Ocean Colour Climate Change Initiative programme—the project team is acknowledged for generating and sharing the merged datasets on chlorophyll and inherent optical properties. The mission scientists and Principal Investigators and everyone associated with compilation of the marine biodiversity database and MICOC data used here are also acknowledged for making these data freely available. Helpful comments and constructive suggestions from the reviewers and editor improved the paper.

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  1. Department of Geography and Environmental Science & School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, Whiteknights, Reading, RG6 6AB, UK

    • Shovonlal Roy


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Correspondence to Shovonlal Roy.

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