The major nutrients (nitrate, phosphate and silicate) needed for phytoplankton growth are abundant in the surface waters of the subarctic Pacific, equatorial Pacific and Southern oceans, but this growth is limited by the availability of iron1,2,3,4,5. Under iron-deficient conditions, phytoplankton exhibit reduced uptake of nitrate6 and lower cellular levels of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus7. Here I describe seawater and culture experiments which show that iron limitation can also affect the ratio of consumed silicate to nitrate and phosphate. In iron-limited waters from all three of the aforementioned environments, addition of iron to phytoplankton assemblages in incubation bottles halved the silicate:nitrate and silicate:phosphate consumption ratios, in spite of the preferential growth of diatoms (silica-shelled phytoplankton). The nutrient consumption ratios of the phytoplankton assemblage from the Southern Ocean were similar to those of an iron-deficient laboratory culture of Antarctic diatoms, which exhibit increased cellular silicon or decreased cellular nitrogen and phosphorus in response to iron limitation. Iron limitation therefore increases the export of biogenic silicon, relative to nitrogen and phosphorus, from the surface to deeper waters. These findings suggest how the sedimentary records of carbon and silicon deposition in the glacial Southern Ocean8 can be consistent with the idea that changes in productivity, and thus in drawdown of atmospheric CO2, during the last glaciation were stimulated by changes in iron inputs from atmospheric dust.
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I thank H. Ogawa, T. Usui, and S. Watanabe for shipboard assistance in processing nutrient samples; H. Obata for assistance in processing iron samples; K. Watanabe for Antarctic phytoplankton samples; and I. Koike, K. Kawaguchi, and M. Terasaki for their support during the cruises. My appreciation is also extended to the crew and officers of the RV Hakuho-maru.
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Takeda, S. Influence of iron availability on nutrient consumption ratio of diatoms in oceanic waters. Nature 393, 774–777 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31674
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