Iron limitation modulates ocean acidification effects on southern ocean phytoplankton communities

PLoS One. 2013 Nov 20;8(11):e79890. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0079890. eCollection 2013.


The potential interactive effects of iron (Fe) limitation and Ocean Acidification in the Southern Ocean (SO) are largely unknown. Here we present results of a long-term incubation experiment investigating the combined effects of CO2 and Fe availability on natural phytoplankton assemblages from the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. Active Chl a fluorescence measurements revealed that we successfully cultured phytoplankton under both Fe-depleted and Fe-enriched conditions. Fe treatments had significant effects on photosynthetic efficiency (Fv/Fm; 0.3 for Fe-depleted and 0.5 for Fe-enriched conditions), non-photochemical quenching (NPQ), and relative electron transport rates (rETR). pCO2 treatments significantly affected NPQ and rETR, but had no effect on Fv/Fm. Under Fe limitation, increased pCO2 had no influence on C fixation whereas under Fe enrichment, primary production increased with increasing pCO2 levels. These CO2-dependent changes in productivity under Fe-enriched conditions were accompanied by a pronounced taxonomic shift from weakly to heavily silicified diatoms (i.e. from Pseudo-nitzschia sp. to Fragilariopsis sp.). Under Fe-depleted conditions, this functional shift was absent and thinly silicified species dominated all pCO2 treatments (Pseudo-nitzschia sp. and Synedropsis sp. for low and high pCO2, respectively). Our results suggest that Ocean Acidification could increase primary productivity and the abundance of heavily silicified, fast sinking diatoms in Fe-enriched areas, both potentially leading to a stimulation of the biological pump. Over much of the SO, however, Fe limitation could restrict this possible CO2 fertilization effect.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acids / metabolism*
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Phytoplankton / metabolism*
  • Seawater
  • Species Specificity


  • Acids
  • Iron

Grant support

S.T. was funded by the German Science Foundation (DFG;, project TR 899/2. B.R. and C.J.M.H. were funded by the European Research Council (ERC; under the European Community's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013), ERC grant agreement no. 205150. C.H. was funded by the Australian Research Council (; DP1092892) and a UTS Chancellor Fellowship ( P.D.T. was funded by an Alexander von Humboldt research fellowship ( grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.