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Effect of trace metal availability on coccolithophorid calcification


The deposition of atmospheric dust into the ocean has varied considerably over geological time1,2. Because some of the trace metals contained in dust are essential plant nutrients which can limit phytoplankton growth in parts of the ocean, it has been suggested that variations in dust supply to the surface ocean might influence primary production3,4. Whereas the role of trace metal availability in photosynthetic carbon fixation has received considerable attention, its effect on biogenic calcification is virtually unknown. The production of both particulate organic carbon and calcium carbonate (CaCO3) drives the ocean's biological carbon pump. The ratio of particulate organic carbon to CaCO3 export, the so-called rain ratio, is one of the factors determining CO2 sequestration in the deep ocean. Here we investigate the influence of the essential trace metals iron and zinc on the prominent CaCO3-producing microalga Emiliania huxleyi. We show that whereas at low iron concentrations growth and calcification are equally reduced, low zinc concentrations result in a de-coupling of the two processes. Despite the reduced growth rate of zinc-limited cells, CaCO3 production rates per cell remain unaffected, thus leading to highly calcified cells. These results suggest that changes in dust deposition can affect biogenic calcification in oceanic regions characterized by trace metal limitation, with possible consequences for CO2 partitioning between the atmosphere and the ocean.

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Figure 1: Zinc concentration in central Greenland snow and ice over the past 150,000 years.
Figure 2: Response of E. huxleyi to varying free iron concentrations ([Fe′(iii)]).
Figure 3: Response of E. huxleyi to varying free zinc concentrations ([Zn2+]).
Figure 4: Scanning electron microscopy images of E. huxleyi grown under different free zinc and CO2 concentrations.


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We thank A. Terbrüggen, K.-U. Richter and B. van der Wagt for laboratory assistance, and M. Lohan, K. W. Bruland and R. E. Zeebe for discussions during the preparation of this manuscript. This work was partly funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).

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Schulz, K., Zondervan, I., Gerringa, L. et al. Effect of trace metal availability on coccolithophorid calcification. Nature 430, 673–676 (2004).

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