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Adaptation of phytoplankton to a decade of experimental warming linked to increased photosynthesis


Phytoplankton photosynthesis is a critical flux in the carbon cycle, accounting for approximately 40% of the carbon dioxide fixed globally on an annual basis and fuelling the productivity of aquatic food webs. However, rapid evolutionary responses of phytoplankton to warming remain largely unexplored, particularly outside the laboratory, where multiple selection pressures can modify adaptation to environmental change. Here, we use a decade-long experiment in outdoor mesocosms to investigate mechanisms of adaptation to warming (+4 °C above ambient temperature) in the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, in naturally assembled communities. Isolates from warmed mesocosms had higher optimal growth temperatures than their counterparts from ambient treatments. Consequently, warm-adapted isolates were stronger competitors at elevated temperature and experienced a decline in competitive fitness in ambient conditions, indicating adaptation to local thermal regimes. Higher competitive fitness in the warmed isolates was linked to greater photosynthetic capacity and reduced susceptibility to photoinhibition. These findings suggest that adaptive responses to warming in phytoplankton could help to mitigate projected declines in aquatic net primary production by increasing rates of cellular net photosynthesis.

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Figure 1: Patterns of local thermal adaptation.
Figure 2: Competitive fitness of the warmed relative to the ambient isolates at 16 and 34 °C.
Figure 3: Differences in photochemical traits between the warmed and ambient isolates.
Figure 4: Shifts in metabolic traits between warmed and ambient isolates.
Figure 5: Higher rates of NP are linked to greater competitive fitness in the warm-adapted isolates.


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This study was supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2013-335) awarded to G.Y.-D, A.B. and N.S., and an NERC grant awarded to S.P. and G.Y.-D. (NE/M003205/1).

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Authors and Affiliations



G.Y.-D. conceived the study. C.-E.S. and G.Y.-D. designed the experimental work, and P.L., C.-E.S., S.B. and E.B. conducted the experiment. C.-E.S. and G.Y.-D. analysed the data. M.T. maintains the experimental mesocosms. C.-E.S. and G.Y.-D. wrote the manuscript and all authors contributed to revisions.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to C.-Elisa Schaum or Gabriel Yvon-Durocher.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figures 1–5, Supplementary Tables 1–5. (PDF 2229 kb)

Supplementary Data 1

Data used for Figures 1–5. (XLSX 33 kb)

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Schaum, CE., Barton, S., Bestion, E. et al. Adaptation of phytoplankton to a decade of experimental warming linked to increased photosynthesis. Nat Ecol Evol 1, 0094 (2017).

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