The co-evolution of phytoplankton and trace element cycles in the oceans


Corresponding author: François M. M. Morel. Tel.: 609-258-2416; fax: 609-258-5242; e-mail:


The composition of the oceans and of its biota have influenced each other through Earth's history. Of all the biologically essential elements, nitrogen is the only one whose seawater concentration is clearly controlled biologically; this is presumably the main reason why the stoichiometry of nitrogen (defined as its mol ratio to phosphorus), but not that of the trace nutrients manganese, iron, cobalt, nickel, copper, zinc and cadmium, is the same in seawater and in the plankton. Like the major nutrients, the trace nutrients are depleted in surface seawater as a result of quasi-complete utilization by the biota. This is made possible in part by the ability of marine phytoplankton to replace one trace metal by another in various biochemical functions. This replacement also results in an equalization of the availability of most essential trace metals in surface seawater. The difference in the stoichiometric composition of the plankton and of deep seawater, which is the dominant source of new nutrients to the surface, indicates that some nutrients are likely recycled with different efficiencies in the photic zone. The difference in the composition of the ocean and its biota provides insight into the coupling of biochemistry and biogeochemistry in seawater.