17 May 2023
 | 17 May 2023
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

A critical trade-off between nitrogen quota and growth allows Coccolithus braarudii life cycle phases’ to exploit varying environment

Joost de Vries, Fanny Monteiro, Gerald Langer, Colin Brownlee, and Glen Wheeler

Abstract. Coccolithophores have a distinct haplo-diplontic life cycle, which allows them to grow and divide in two different life cycle phases (haploid and diploid). These life cycle phases vary significantly in inorganic carbon content and morphology, and inhabit distinct niches, with haploids generally preferring low-nutrient and high-temperature and light environments. This niche contrast indicates different physiology of the life cycle phases, which is considered here in the context of a trait trade-off framework, in which a particular set of traits comes with both costs and benefits. However, coccolithophore's phase trade-offs are not fully identified, limiting our understanding of the functionality of the coccolithophore life cycle. Here, we investigate the response of the two life cycle phases of the coccolithophore Coccolithus braarudii to key environmental drivers: light, temperature and nutrients, using laboratory experiments. With this data, we identify the main trade-offs of each life cycle phase and use models to test the role of such trade-offs under different environmental conditions.

The lab experiments show the life cycle phases have similar cell size, nitrogen requirement, uptake rates, and temperature and light optima. However, we find that they have different coccosphere sizes, maximum growth rates and nitrogen quotas. We also observe a trade-off between maximum growth rate and nitrogen quota, with higher growth rates and small nitrogen storage in the haploid phase and vice versa in the diploid phase.

Testing these phase characteristics in the model, we find that the growth-quota trade-off allows C. braarudii to exploit variable nitrogen conditions more efficiently. Because while the diploid ability to store more nitrogen is advantageous when the nitrogen supply is intermittent, the higher haploid growth rate is advantageous when the nitrogen supply is constant.

Although the ecological drivers of C. braarudii life cycle fitness are likely multi-faceted, spanning both top-down and bottom-up trait trade-offs, our results suggest that a trade-off between nitrogen storage and maximum growth rate is an essential bottom-up control on the distribution of C. braarudii life cycle phases.

Joost de Vries et al.

Status: open (until 06 Jul 2023)

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Joost de Vries et al.

Model code and software

HET-HOL competition model Joost de Vries

Joost de Vries et al.


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Short summary
Calcifying phytoplankton (coccolithophores) utilize a life cycle in which they can grow and divide in two different phases. These two phases (HET and HOL) vary in terms of their physiology and distributions, with many unknowns about what the key differences are. Using a combination of lab experiments and model simulations we find that nutrient storage is a critical difference between the two phases, and that this difference allows them to inhabit different nitrogen input regimes.