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Confirmation of iron limitation of phytoplankton photosynthesis in the equatorial Pacific Ocean

Abstract

THE eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean is one of only three open-ocean regions where low phytoplankton chlorophyll biomass persists despite perennially high nitrate and phosphate nutrient concentrations1. In 1993, an area within this region was artificially enriched with a single dose of soluble iron to test whether phytoplankton are physiologically prevented from utilizing the available nutrients by the low natural iron concentrations2,3. Although photosynthesis was stimulated4, the observed lack of a bloom or a significant decrease in nutrient concentrations could not be attributed unequivocally to zooplankton grazing5–7, further iron limitation or secondary nutrient limitation2,4. In 1995, a second iron-enrichment experiment (IronEx II) was conducted in which the same total dosage of iron was added, but over eight days8. A massive phytoplankton bloom developed, significantly reducing surface-water nutrient and CO2 concentrations8–10. Here we report in situ measurements of fluorescence during IronEx II, which show that the iron enrichment triggered biophysical alterations of the phytoplankton's photosynthetic apparatus, resulting in increased photosynthetic capacities throughout the experiment and, hence, the observed bloom. These results unequivocally establish physiological limitation of phytoplankton by iron as the cause of the high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll phenomenon in this ocean region.

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Behrenfeld, M., Bale, A., Kolber, Z. et al. Confirmation of iron limitation of phytoplankton photosynthesis in the equatorial Pacific Ocean. Nature 383, 508–511 (1996). https://doi.org/10.1038/383508a0

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