Physiological control on carbon isotope fractionation in marine phytoplankton

Karen M. Brandenburg*, Björn Rost, Dedmer B. Van De Waal, Mirja Hoins, Appy Sluijs

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/periodicalArticleScientificpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


One of the great challenges in biogeochemical research over the past half a century has been to quantify and understand the mechanisms underlying stable carbon isotope fractionation (ϵp) in phytoplankton in response to changing CO2 concentrations. This interest is partly grounded in the use of fossil photosynthetic organism remains as a proxy for past atmospheric CO2 levels. Phytoplankton organic carbon is depleted in 13C compared to its source because of kinetic fractionation by the enzyme RubisCO during photosynthetic carbon fixation, as well as through physiological pathways upstream of RubisCO. Moreover, other factors such as nutrient limitation, variations in light regime as well as phytoplankton culturing systems and inorganic carbon manipulation approaches may confound the influence of aquatic CO2 concentrations [CO2] on ϵp. Here, based on experimental data compiled from the literature, we assess which underlying physiological processes cause the observed differences in ϵp for various phytoplankton groups in response to C-demand/C-supply, i.e., particulate organic carbon (POC) production / [CO2]) and test potential confounding factors. Culturing approaches and methods of carbonate chemistry manipulation were found to best explain the differences in ϵp between studies, although day length was an important predictor for ϵp in haptophytes. Extrapolating results from culturing experiments to natural environments and for proxy applications therefore require caution, and it should be carefully considered whether culture methods and experimental conditions are representative of natural environments.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3305-3315
Number of pages11
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2022

Research theme

  • Climate change


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