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Diatom elemental and morphological changes in response to iron limitation: a brief review with potential paleoceanographic applications


A. Marchetti. Tel.: 206 685 4196; fax: 206 685 6651; e-mail:


Diatoms are a major group of phytoplankton that account for approximately 40% of the ocean carbon fixation and the vast majority of biogenic silica production through the construction of their cell walls (termed frustules). These frustules accumulate and are partially preserved in the ocean sediments. Diatom growth and nutrient utilization in high-nitrate, low-chlorophyll regions of the world’s oceans are mostly regulated by iron availability. Diatoms acclimate to iron limitation by decreasing cell size. The associated increase in surface area-to-volume ratio and decrease in diffusive boundary layer thickness may improve nutrient uptake kinetics. In parallel, cellular silicon (Si) contents are elevated in iron-limited diatoms relative to nitrogen (N) and carbon (C). Variations in degree of silicification and nutritional requirements of iron-limited diatoms have been hypothesized to account for higher cellular Si and/or lower cellular N and C, respectively. However, in some diatoms, frustule silicification does not significantly change when cells are iron-limited. Instead, changes in the Si-containing valve surface area relative to volume within these diatoms is hypothesized to be responsible for the variations in the cellular Si : N and Si : C ratios. In particular, some examined iron-limited pennate diatoms have reduced widths relative to their lengths (i.e. lower length-normalized widths, LNW) compared to iron-replete cells. In the pennate diatom Fragilariopsis kerguelensis, the mean LNWs of valves preserved in sediments throughout the Southern Ocean (a well-characterized iron-limited region) is positively correlated with satellite-derived, climatological net primary productivity in the overlying waters. Because of the specific morphological changes in pennate diatom frustules in response to iron availability, the valve morphometerics (e.g. LNWs) can potentially be used as a diagnostic tool for iron-limited diatom growth and relative changes in the Si : N (and Si : C) ratios in extant diatom assemblages as well as those preserved in the sediments.

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