As for most other organisms, genome size in zooplankton differs widely. This may have a range of consequences for growth rate, development, and life history strategies, yet the causes of this pronounced variability are not settled. Here we propose that small genome size may be an evolutionary consequence of phosphorus (P) allocation from DNA to RNA under P deficiency. To test this hypothesis we have compared the two major groups of zooplankton, copepods and cladocerans, that have overlapping niches and body size. Relative to the cladocerans, copepods have a more complex life history and a lower mass-specific P content, while cladocerans tend to have higher P and RNA contents and higher specific growth rates and frequently experience P-limited growth, likely due to a shortage of P for ribosome synthesis. Cladocerans also generally have smaller genomes than copepods (1C = 0.17-0.63 pg DNA·cell-1 vs. 1C = 0.10-10 pg DNA·cell-1). Furthermore, cladocerans have a higher slope of the relationship of body size with DNA content (1.5 vs. 0.28 in copepods) and present almost 15-fold higher RNA:DNA ratios (24.8 in cladocerans vs. 1.6 in copepods). Hence, small genome size in cladocerans could reflect an evolutionary pressure towards "efficient" genomes to conserve a key element needed to maximize growth rate. We do not claim that this is a universal cause of genome size variability, but propose that streamlining of genomes could be related to P conservation rather than energy conservation. This could be relevant for a range of organisms that may suffer P-limited growth rates.
- Genome size