Chlorophyll content and fluorescence responses cannot be used to gauge reliably phytoplankton biomass, nutrient status or growth rate

New Phytol. 2006;169(3):525-36. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2005.01601.x.


To consider the relationship between chlorophyll a (Chl a) content and phytoplankton growth and nutrient status, four phytoplankton species were grown in nitrogen (N)-limited [and, for one species, phosphorus (P)-limited] culture and measurements were made of CNP biomass, in vivo and in vitro Chl a content, the ratio of variable to maximum fluorescence (FV/FM) and the performance index for photosynthesis, PIABS (a derivative of the O-J-I-P analysis of photosystem II functionality). Interspecies differences plus the development of intraspecies differences during nutrient stress produced c. 10-fold variations in Chl : C. Estimates of C from in vivo Chl content were better than those from extracted Chl content, as the decline in Chl : C during nutrient stress was offset in part by increased Chl fluorescence. FV/FM was not a robust indicator of nutrient status or relative growth rate. Responses of FV/FM in cells re-fed the limiting nutrient showed no consistent pattern with which to gauge nutrient status. PIABS showed some promise as an indicator of nutrient status and relative growth rate. Chl a content and fluorescence parameters do not deserve the unquestioned status they usually enjoy as indicators of biomass and physiological status.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomass
  • Carbon / analysis
  • Chlorophyll / analysis*
  • Chlorophyll / isolation & purification
  • Chlorophyll A
  • Nitrogen / metabolism
  • Phosphorus / metabolism
  • Photosynthesis
  • Phytoplankton / chemistry*
  • Phytoplankton / growth & development*
  • Spectrometry, Fluorescence / methods


  • Chlorophyll
  • Phosphorus
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen
  • Chlorophyll A