Variability of chromophytic phytoplankton in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre

Binglin Li, David M. Karl, Ricardo M. Letelier, Robert R. Bidigare, Matthew J. Church

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19 Scopus citations


Eukaryotic phytoplankton play important roles in regulating productivity and material export in oligotrophic ocean ecosystems. In this study, we examined the vertical and temporal variability in planktonic Chromalveolate (hereafter chromophyte) assemblages over a 2-year period (2007-2009) at Station ALOHA (22°45'N, 158°W) in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre (NPSG). Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification, cloning, and sequencing of form ID rbcL genes from samples collected at nearly monthly intervals provided information on the diversity, abundances, and variability associated with chromophytic phytoplankton. Despite persistently oligotrophic conditions, the euphotic zone of this habitat supported a phylogenetically diverse assemblage of chromophytic algae, including representatives of various genera of diatoms, pelagophytes, prymnesiophytes, and dinoflagellates. Quantitative PCR (qPCR) amplification of diatom, prymnesiophyte, and pelagophyte rbcL phylotypes revealed that the population structure of these assemblages was highly variable in time, with gene abundances often varying more than an order of magnitude between successive months. Diatom rbcL genes were typically the most abundant in both the upper and lower regions of the euphotic zone, while rbcL gene abundances of the prymnesiophytes and pelagophytes were significantly greater (One-way ANOVA, P<0.05) in the lower regions of the euphotic zone (75-125. m) than in the upper euphotic zone (5-45. m). Similarly, we observed elevated concentrations of 19-hexanoxyfucoxanthin and 19-butanoxyfucoxanin (diagnostic pigments of prymnesiophytes and pelagophytes, respectively) in the lower euphotic zone, while concentrations of fucoxanthin (a diagnostic diatom pigment) demonstrated less vertical structure. Analyses of samples collected using sediment traps deployed at 150. m revealed that members of diatoms, prymnesiophytes, and pelagophytes all contributed to material export out of the upper ocean. None of the phytoplankton groups displayed significant seasonality in gene abundances or fluxes over the period of observations. Our study confirms that diatoms are ubiquitous and diverse members of the euphotic zone phytoplankton assemblage in the NPSG, while prymnesiophytes and pelagophytes appear to capitalize on the relatively nutrient-enriched but low light conditions characteristic of the deeper euphotic zone waters. The combined use of molecular- and pigment-based tools demonstrated that despite persistently oligotrophic conditions chromophytic plankton are perennial contributors to upper ocean biomass and particle export in the NPSG.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)84-95
Number of pages12
JournalDeep-Sea Research Part II: Topical Studies in Oceanography
StatePublished - Sep 2013


  • Diatoms
  • North Pacific
  • Oligotrophic
  • Pelagophytes
  • Phytoplankton
  • Prymnesiophytes
  • Station ALOHA


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