Nutrients that limit growth in the ocean

Curr Biol. 2017 Jun 5;27(11):R474-R478. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.03.030.


Phytoplankton form the basis of the marine food web and are responsible for approximately half of global carbon dioxide (CO2) fixation (∼ 50 Pg of carbon per year). Thus, these microscopic, photosynthetic organisms are vital in controlling the atmospheric CO2 concentration and Earth's climate. Phytoplankton are dependent on sunlight and their CO2-fixation activity is therefore restricted to the upper, sunlit surface ocean (that is, the euphotic zone). CO2 usually does not limit phytoplankton growth due to its high concentration in seawater. However, the vast majority of oceanic surface waters are depleted in inorganic nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and/or silica; nutrients that limit primary production in the ocean (Figure 1). Phytoplankton growth is mainly supported by either the recycling of nutrients or by reintroduction of nutrients from deeper waters by mixing. A small percentage of primary production, though, is fueled by 'external' or 'new' nutrients and it is these nutrients that determine the amount of carbon that can be sequestered long term in the deep ocean. For most nutrients such as phosphorus, iron, and silica, the external supply is limited to atmospheric deposition and/or coastal and riverine inputs, whereas their main sink is the sedimentation of particulate matter. Nitrogen, however, has an additional, biological source, the fixation of N2 gas, as well as biological sinks via the processes of denitrification and anammox. Despite the comparatively small contributions to the overall turnover of nutrients in the ocean, it is these biological processes that determine the ocean's capacity to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere on time scales of ocean circulation (∼ 1000 years). This primer will highlight shifts in the traditional paradigms of nutrient limitation in the ocean, with a focus on the uniqueness of the nitrogen cycling and its biological sources and sinks.

MeSH terms

  • Atmosphere / chemistry*
  • Carbon Dioxide / metabolism*
  • Climate
  • Food Chain
  • Iron / chemistry
  • Nitrogen / chemistry
  • Nitrogen / metabolism*
  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Oceans and Seas*
  • Phosphorus / chemistry
  • Photosynthesis
  • Phytoplankton / physiology*
  • Silicon Dioxide / chemistry


  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Phosphorus
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Iron
  • Nitrogen