With the ongoing differential disruption of the biogeochemical cycles of major elements that are essential for all life (carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus), organisms are increasingly faced with a heterogenous supply of these elements in nature. Given that photosynthetic primary producers form the base of aquatic food webs, impacts of changed elemental supply on these organisms are particularly important. One way that phytoplankton cope with the differential availability of nutrients is through physiological changes, resulting in plasticity in macromolecular and elemental biomass composition. Here, we assessed how the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii adjusts its macromolecular (e.g., carbohydrates, lipids, and proteins) and elemental (C, N, and P) biomass pools in response to changes in growth rate and the modification of resources (nutrients and light). We observed that Chlamydomonas exhibits considerable plasticity in elemental composition (e.g., molar ratios ranging from 124 to 971 for C:P, 4.5 to 25.9 for C:N, and 15.1 to 61.2 for N:P) under all tested conditions, pointing to the adaptive potential of Chlamydomonas in a changing environment. Exposure to low light modified the elemental and macromolecular composition of cells differently than limitation by nutrients. These observed differences, with potential consequences for higher trophic levels, included smaller cells, shifts in C:N and C:P ratios (due to proportionally greater N and P contents), and differential allocation of C among macromolecular pools (proportionally more lipids than carbohydrates) with different energetic value. However, substantial pools of N and P remained unaccounted for, especially at fast growth, indicating accumulation of N and P in forms we did not measure.
- green algae
- growth rate hypothesis