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Sensitivity of coccolithophores to carbonate chemistry and ocean acidification


About one-third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity has been absorbed by the oceans1, where it partitions into the constituent ions of carbonic acid. This leads to ocean acidification, one of the major threats to marine ecosystems2 and particularly to calcifying organisms such as corals3,4, foraminifera5,6,7 and coccolithophores8. Coccolithophores are abundant phytoplankton that are responsible for a large part of modern oceanic carbonate production. Culture experiments investigating the physiological response of coccolithophore calcification to increased CO2 have yielded contradictory results between and even within species8,9,10,11. Here we quantified the calcite mass of dominant coccolithophores in the present ocean and over the past forty thousand years, and found a marked pattern of decreasing calcification with increasing partial pressure of CO2 and concomitant decreasing concentrations of CO32−. Our analyses revealed that differentially calcified species and morphotypes are distributed in the ocean according to carbonate chemistry. A substantial impact on the marine carbon cycle might be expected upon extrapolation of this correlation to predicted ocean acidification in the future. However, our discovery of a heavily calcified Emiliania huxleyi morphotype in modern waters with low pH highlights the complexity of assemblage-level responses to environmental forcing factors.

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Figure 1: Relationships between coccolith mass and carbonate chemistry.
Figure 2: Variation of coccolith mass, species composition and CO 2 concentration over the last 40 kyr.
Figure 3: Physico-chemical and coccolithophore variability along an east–west acidity gradient in the south-east Pacific.

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Data deposits

The GenBank accession numbers are JN098138–JN098158, JN098160 and JN098163–JN098174; their correspondence is given in the online Supplementary Information.


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We thank the crew from Puerto Deseado, Atalante, Suroit and Marion-Dufresne, and D. Vaulot, L. Garczarek, M.-A. Sicre and H. Claustre for their help in collecting material for this work. The long-term OISO observational programme is supported by INSU (Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers), IPSL (Institut Pierre-Simon Laplace) and IPEV (Institut Paul-Emile Victor). We thank F. C. Bassinot for help in estimating palaeosalinities. The IMAGES programme is acknowledged for collection and curation of the cores. This work was funded by the ‘Agence National de la Recherche’ project PALEO-CTD (grant ANR-06-JCJC-0142), by the European Research Council under grant agreement 205150, by the European Funding Agencies from the ERA-net program Biodiversa, under the Biomarks project, and by the European Community’s Seventh Framework Program EPOCA (European Project on Ocean Acidification) under grant agreement 211384.

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On the basis of an original idea from L.B., the concept of this paper was developed in discussion between all authors. L.B., N.B., P.C. and M.G. conducted coccolith measurements, D.R.-P., N.M. and C.G. conducted modern-ocean chemistry measurements, L.B. and T.d.G.-T. computed past ocean chemistry, E.M.B., I.P. and C.d.V. performed genetic analyses, B.R., R.E.M.R. and I.P. conceptualized the physiological interpretation, L.B., I.P., D.R.-P., C.d.V. and R.E.M.R. interpreted the relationships between calcification and environment.

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Correspondence to L. Beaufort.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Figures 1-7 with legends, Supplementary Tables 1-4 and additional references. (PDF 7250 kb)

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Beaufort, L., Probert, I., de Garidel-Thoron, T. et al. Sensitivity of coccolithophores to carbonate chemistry and ocean acidification. Nature 476, 80–83 (2011).

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