Global abundance of planktonic heterotrophic protists in the deep ocean

ISME J. 2015 Mar;9(3):782-92. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2014.168. Epub 2014 Oct 7.


The dark ocean is one of the largest biomes on Earth, with critical roles in organic matter remineralization and global carbon sequestration. Despite its recognized importance, little is known about some key microbial players, such as the community of heterotrophic protists (HP), which are likely the main consumers of prokaryotic biomass. To investigate this microbial component at a global scale, we determined their abundance and biomass in deepwater column samples from the Malaspina 2010 circumnavigation using a combination of epifluorescence microscopy and flow cytometry. HP were ubiquitously found at all depths investigated down to 4000 m. HP abundances decreased with depth, from an average of 72±19 cells ml(-1) in mesopelagic waters down to 11±1 cells ml(-1) in bathypelagic waters, whereas their total biomass decreased from 280±46 to 50±14 pg C ml(-1). The parameters that better explained the variance of HP abundance were depth and prokaryote abundance, and to lesser extent oxygen concentration. The generally good correlation with prokaryotic abundance suggested active grazing of HP on prokaryotes. On a finer scale, the prokaryote:HP abundance ratio varied at a regional scale, and sites with the highest ratios exhibited a larger contribution of fungi molecular signal. Our study is a step forward towards determining the relationship between HP and their environment, unveiling their importance as players in the dark ocean's microbial food web.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biomass
  • Eukaryota / isolation & purification
  • Heterotrophic Processes*
  • Oceans and Seas
  • Plankton / cytology
  • Plankton / isolation & purification*
  • Seawater / microbiology