A new approach of modeling dissolved organic matter release by phytoplankton. Is it an improvement?

A new approach of modeling dissolved organic matter release by phytoplankton. Is it an improvement?by Bastien Mourguiart and Thomas Panarotto

Published by Charlotte Recapet the April 12, 2019 on 8:53 PM

Phytoplankton is playing key roles in marine ecosystems. These microscopic plants are known, in particular, to be a part of the “Biological Pump”. Using photosynthesis as metabolism, it fixes carbon of the atmosphere to produce energy. This process reduces atmospheric concentration of CO2 and limits the greenhouse effect. It also produces oxygen indispensable to the life of many organisms.

Phytoplankton forms the basis of the marine food chain. Autotrophic organisms, they convert sunlight energy into chemical energy (food). This food constituted by molecules with carbon (organic matter) can pass directly along the food chain when zooplankton eats the phytoplankton and in turn are consumed by larger animals such as fishes, whales, squids, shellfishes and birds. Organic matter (OM) can also be released by phytoplankton in a dissolved form named dissolved organic matter (DOM). Organic matter can then be absorbed by bacteria and enter the main food chain when bacteria are eaten by zooplankton.


Marine food web

Heterotrophic prokaryotes (all animals) use carbon contained in DOM as a major source of energy.  So, products excreted by phytoplankton are really important in the functioning of marine ecosystems and understand how DOM is released in the environment is essential.

Livanou et al. present in their article “A DEB-based approach of modeling dissolved organic matter release by phytoplankton” a new model to calculate DOM release by phytoplankton. They apply Dynamic Energy Budget (DEB) theory on phytoplankton cells for that. In this study, the metabolism theory leads to describe DOM fluxes, based on assumptions about energy uptake, storage, and utilization of N and C. The authors are mainly interested in how DOM is excreted by phytoplankton under different nitrate concentrations.

They calibrate and test the goodness of fit of the model using past laboratory data. In this previous experiment, others scientists (Flynn et al. 2008), measured DOM released by one species of phytoplankton with two phase of nutrient concentration: one with enough nitrate for all the individuals and one with nitrate in limitation. The results of DEB-Model fit well to experimental data according to Livanou et al. even it does not explain all the information: in the figure below, lines (the model) do not fit exactly the points (experimental data).


Figure 2 in Livanou et al.

To conclude, they explain quickly that their model permit to describe how DOM is released. In no N-limitation condition, passive mode is used and DOM excreted is more accessible for bacteria. For N-limitation condition, DOM released cannot be used by bacteria and it tends to accumulate.

This study is maybe a step forward in comprehension of phytoplankton physiological mechanisms. However, in our opinion, it is not really useful to improve our understanding of energetic flows in the oceans. Moreover, the model was calibrated for only one of the thousand species of phytoplankton existing in nature. It should be calibrated for others species to catch up more processes which can change between species. The model can be more accurate catching up all the processes in this particular species too: the fitting test shows some differences from the experimental data (Figure 2). There is also limiting by the fact that only one nutrient is used as limiting nutrient: in reality, there can be more (Moore et al. 2013). To summarize, it needs very lot of work on this model to employ it in real ecosystems and be an improvement.

Cited study: Livanou E. et al. (2019). A DEB-based approach of modeling dissolved organic matter release by phytoplankton. Journal of Sea Research 143, 140-151.

Other references:

Flynn, K. J., Clark, D. R., and Xue, Y., (2008). Modeling the release of dissolved organic matter by phytoplankton, J. Phycol., 44, 1171–1187, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1529- 8817.2008.00562.x

Moore, C. M. et al. (2013). Processes and patterns of oceanic nutrient limitation. Nature geoscience, 6(9), 701.

Image source: Maggy Wassilieff, 'Plankton - Animal plankton', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/diagram/5137/marine-food-chain (accessed 8 February 2019)

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