Coccolithophores have played a key role in the carbon cycle since becoming dominant in the Cretaceous ocean, and their influence depends fundamentally on how they interact with their external carbon environment. Because the photosynthetic carbon-fixing enzyme Rubisco requires high levels of CO2 for effective catalysis, coccolithophores are known to induce carbon concentrating mechanisms (CCMs) to raise the level of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) in an ‘internal pool’. The ocean carbon system has varied greatly over the geological past, suggesting that coccolithophore interactions with that external carbon environment will have changed in parallel. The widespread present-day coccolithophore Gephyrocapsa oceanica was acclimated here to a geological scale change in the seawater carbon system (five times higher DIC and alkalinity). Significant acclimation in response to the external carbon environment was demonstrated by a fourfold increase in the Km substrate concentration requirement for half-maximum photosynthetic carbon fixation rates (suggesting that CCMs were down-regulated when ambient carbon was more available). There was, however, no difference in growth rate, morphology or calcification, suggesting that calcification is not coupled to photosynthesis as one of the CCMs induced here and that productivity (growth rate and calcification) is not carbon-limited under representative present-day conditions. Beyond the kinetic parameters of photosynthesis, the only other indication of changed cell physiology seen was the increased fractionation of carbon isotopes into organic matter. These findings demonstrate that G. oceanica changes its carbon-use physiology to maintain consistent photosynthetic carbon fixation in concert with different levels of ambient DIC without changing its morphology or calcification.
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