Nitrogen source and pCO2 synergistically affect carbon allocation, growth and morphology of the coccolithophore Emiliania huxleyi: potential implications of ocean acidification for the carbon cycle


Correspondence: Stephane C. Lefebvre, tel. + 1 415 338 3788, fax + 1 415 435 7120, e-mail:


Coccolithophores are unicellular phytoplankton that produce calcium carbonate coccoliths as an exoskeleton. Emiliania huxleyi, the most abundant coccolithophore in the world's ocean, plays a major role in the global carbon cycle by regulating the exchange of CO2 across the ocean-atmosphere interface through photosynthesis and calcium carbonate precipitation. As CO2 concentration is rising in the atmosphere, the ocean is acidifying and ammonium (NH4+) concentration of future ocean water is expected to rise. The latter is attributed to increasing anthropogenic nitrogen (N) deposition, increasing rates of cyanobacterial N2 fixation due to warmer and more stratified oceans, and decreased rates of nitrification due to ocean acidification. Thus, future global climate change will cause oceanic phytoplankton to experience changes in multiple environmental parameters including CO2, pH, temperature and nitrogen source. This study reports on the combined effect of elevated pCO2 and increased NH4+ to nitrate (NO3) ratio (NH4+/NO3) on E. huxleyi, maintained in continuous cultures for more than 200 generations under two pCO2 levels and two different N sources. Herein, we show that NH4+ assimilation under N-replete conditions depresses calcification at both low and high pCO2, alters coccolith morphology, and increases primary production. We observed that N source and pCO2 synergistically drive growth rates, cell size, and the ratio of inorganic to organic carbon. These responses to N source suggest that, compared to increasing CO2 alone, a greater disruption of the organic carbon pump could be expected in response to the combined effect of increased NH4+/NO3 ratio and CO2 level in the future acidified ocean. Additional experiments conducted under lower nutrient conditions are needed prior to extrapolating our findings to the global oceans. Nonetheless, our results emphasize the need to assess combined effects of multiple environmental parameters on phytoplankton biology to develop accurate predictions of phytoplankton responses to ocean acidification.