Trait-based approaches to community structure are increasingly used in terrestrial ecology. We show that such an approach, augmented by a mechanistic analysis of trade-offs among functional traits, can be successfully used to explain community composition of marine phytoplankton along environmental gradients. Our analysis of literature on major functional traits in phytoplankton, such as parameters of nutrient-dependent growth and uptake, reveals physiological trade-offs in species abilities to acquire and utilize resources. These trade-offs, arising from fundamental relations such as cellular scaling laws and enzyme kinetics, define contrasting ecological strategies of nutrient acquisition. Major groups of marine eukaryotic phytoplankton have adopted distinct strategies with associated traits. These diverse strategies of nutrient utilization can explain the distribution patterns of major functional groups and size classes along nutrient availability gradients.