Investigating Coccolithophorid Biology in the Sedimentary Laboratory
Thursday, 18 December 2014
Coccolithophores are the ocean’s dominant calcifying phytoplankton; they play an important, but poorly understood, role in long-term biogeochemical climatic feedbacks. Calcite producing marine organisms are likely to calcify less in a future world where higher carbon dioxide concentrations will lead to ocean acidification (OA), but coccolithophores may be the exception. In coccolithophores calcification occurs in an intracellular vesicle, where the site of calcite precipitation is buffered from the external environment and is subject to a uniquely high degree of biological control. Culture manipulation experiments mimicking the effects of OA in the laboratory have yielded empirical evidence for phenotypic plasticity, competition and evolutionary adaptation in asexual populations. However, the extent to which these results are representative of natural populations, and of the response over timescales of greater than a few hundred generations, is unclear. Here we describe a new sediment-based proxy for the PIC:POC (particulate inorganic to particulate organic carbon ratio) of coccolithophore biomass, which is equivalent to the fractional energy contribution to calcification at constant pH, and a biologically meaningful measure of the organism’s tendency to calcify. Employing the geological record as a laboratory, we apply this proxy to sedimentary material from the southern Pacific Ocean to investigate the integrated response of real ancient coccolithophore populations to environmental change over many thousands of years. Our results provide a new perspective on phenotypic change in real populations of coccolithophorid algae over long timescales.