Inorganic carbon uptake by Alexandrium catenella estimated from incorporation of 13C labelled bicarbonate (an estimate of carbon gain by autotrophy) was compared to increases in particulate carbon (PC) that integrate all processes leading to carbon gain by cells (autotrophy, heterotrophy, mixotrophy). During blooms of A. catenella in the field, the 13C tracer technique could account for only 47% (range 29%–59%) of the increase in PC in conventional 24 h incubations. From dilution experiments, the ratio of PC increases to bicarbonate uptake was related significantly and positively to the grazing rate, indicating that dissolved organic carbon contributes to growth as a direct function of grazing activity. In addition, as grazing rate increases, the contribution of dissolved inorganic carbon uptake to carbon-based growth decreases in a linear way (from 56% to 33% of total C acquisition) and the contribution of non autotrophic processes increases (from 54% to 67%). Thus, grazing appears to closely control the balance between autotrophic and non autotrophic processes leading to carbon acquisition by natural populations of A. catenella.