The photosynthetic activity of marine phytoplankton from five algal classes (Phaeodactylum tricornutum, Skeletonema costatum, Thalassiosira oceanica, Thalassiosira weissflogii, Dunaliella tertiolecta, Mantoniella squamata, Emiliania huxleyi, Pavlova lutheri and Heterosigma akashiwo) was investigated under identical growth conditions to determine interspecies differences. Primary photochemistry and electron transport capacity of individual species were examined by pulse amplitude-modulated (PAM) fluorescence. Although few differences were found in maximal photosystem II (PSII) photochemical efficiency between various species, large differences were noticed in their PSII-photosystem I (PSI) electron transport activity. We found that species such as T. oceanica and M. squamata have much lower photochemical activity than H. akashiwo. It appeared that processes involved in electron transport activity were more susceptible to change during algal evolution compared with the primary photochemical act close to PSII. Large variations in the nonphotochemical energy dissipation event among species were also observed. Light energy required to saturate photosynthesis was very different between species. We have shown that M. squamata and H. akashiwo required higher light energy (>1300 μmol m−2 s−1) to saturate photosynthesis compared with S. costatum and E. huxleyi (ca 280 μmol m−2 s−1). These differences were interpreted to be the result of variations in the size of lightharvesting complexes associated with PSII. These disparities in photosynthetic activity might modulate algal community structure in the natural environment where light energy is highly variable. Our results suggest that for an accurate evaluation of primary productivity from fluorescence measurements, it is essential to know the species composition of the algal community and the individual photosynthetic capacity related to the major phytoplankton species present in the natural phytoplankton assemblage.