The role of highly unsaturated fatty acids in aquatic foodweb processes


DÖRTHE C. MÜLLER-NAVARRA Observatoire Oceanogique, B.P. 28, F-06230 Villefranche sur Mer, France


1. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) are almost exclusively synthesized by plants. Animals can convert from one form of PUFA to another through elongation and desaturation, but very few can synthesize PUFA de novo. PUFA play an important role in regulating cell membrane properties, serve as precursors for important animal hormones and are essential for animals.

2. In aquaculture studies, highly unsaturated fatty acids (HUFA), a subset of PUFA, have been found to be critical for maintaining high growth, survival and reproductive rates and high food conversion efficiencies for a wide variety of marine and freshwater organisms.

3. The plankton literature suggests high food-quality algae species are rich in HUFA and low food-quality algae are poor in HUFA. Adding semi-pure emulsions of HUFA to algae monocultures can markedly increase the growth rates of zooplankton feeding on these mixtures.

4. A study measuring zooplankton biomass accrual when feeding on natural phytoplankton found a strong correlation between phytoplankton HUFA (specifically eicosapentaenoic acid) content and herbivorous zooplankton production.

5. The aquatic ecology literature suggests that planktonic foodwebs with high HUFA content phytoplankton have high zooplankton to phytoplankton biomass ratios, while systems with low HUFA phytoplankton have low zooplankton biomass. Also, the seasonal succession of plankton in many temperate lakes follows patterns tied to phytoplankton HUFA content, with intense zooplankton grazing and ‘clear-water-phases’ characteristic of periods when the phytoplankton is dominated by HUFA-rich species.

6. Herbivorous zooplankton production is constrained by the zooplankton’s ability to ingest and digest phytoplankton. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that much of the phytoplankton which is assimilated may be nutritionally inadequate. HUFA may be key nutritional constituents of zooplankton diets, and may determine energetic efficiency across the plant–animal interface, secondary production and the strength of trophic coupling in aquatic pelagic foodwebs.