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Adaptive divergence in pigment composition promotes phytoplankton biodiversity


The dazzling diversity of the phytoplankton has puzzled biologists for decades1,2,3,4,5. The puzzle has been enlarged rather than solved by the progressive discovery of new phototrophic microorganisms in the oceans, including picocyanobacteria6,7, pico-eukaryotes8, and bacteriochlorophyll-based9,10,11 and rhodopsin-based phototrophic bacteria12,13. Physiological and genomic studies suggest that natural selection promotes niche differentiation among these phototrophic microorganisms, particularly with respect to their photosynthetic characteristics14,15,16. We have analysed competition for light between two closely related picocyanobacteria of the Synechococcus group that we isolated from the Baltic Sea17. One of these two has a red colour because it contains the pigment phycoerythrin, whereas the other is blue-green because it contains high contents of the pigment phycocyanin. Here we report theory and competition experiments that reveal stable coexistence of the two picocyanobacteria, owing to partitioning of the light spectrum. Further competition experiments with a third marine cyanobacterium, capable of adapting its pigment composition, show that this species persists by investing in the pigment that absorbs the colour not used by its competitors. These results demonstrate the adaptive significance of divergence in pigment composition of phototrophic microorganisms, which allows an efficient utilization of light energy and favours species coexistence.

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Figure 1: Optical characteristics of the picocyanobacteria BS4 and BS5.
Figure 2: Monoculture experiments and competition experiments with the picocyanobacteria BS4 and BS5.
Figure 3: Competition between the filamentous cyanobacterium Tolypothrix and the picocyanobacteria BS4 and BS5.


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We thank M. Staal for his contribution to the isolation of the Baltic Sea picocyanobacteria, C. Sigon for support during the competition experiments, B. Sommeijer for advice on efficient numerical techniques, and O. Béjà for comments on the manuscript. The research of M.S. and J.H. was supported by the Earth and Life Sciences Foundation (ALW), which is subsidized by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

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Correspondence to Jef Huisman.

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Stomp, M., Huisman, J., de Jongh, F. et al. Adaptive divergence in pigment composition promotes phytoplankton biodiversity. Nature 432, 104–107 (2004).

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