The factors that control elemental ratios within phytoplankton, like carbon:nitrogen:phosphorus (C:N:P), are key to biogeochemical cycles. Previous studies have identified relationships between nutrient-limited growth and elemental ratios in large eukaryotes, but little is known about these interactions in small marine phytoplankton like the globally important Cyanobacteria. To improve our understanding of these interactions in picophytoplankton, we asked how cellular elemental stoichiometry varies as a function of steady-state, N- and P-limited growth in laboratory chemostat cultures of Synechococcus WH8102. By combining empirical data and theoretical modeling, we identified a previously unrecognized factor (growth-dependent variability in cell size) that controls the relationship between nutrient-limited growth and cellular elemental stoichiometry. To predict the cellular elemental stoichiometry of phytoplankton, previous theoretical models rely on the traditional Droop model, which purports that the acquisition of a single limiting nutrient suffices to explain the relationship between a cellular nutrient quota and growth rate. Our study, however, indicates that growth-dependent changes in cell size have an important role in regulating cell nutrient quotas. This key ingredient, along with nutrient-uptake protein regulation, enables our model to predict the cellular elemental stoichiometry of Synechococcus across a range of nutrient-limited conditions. Our analysis also adds to the growth rate hypothesis, suggesting that P-rich biomolecules other than nucleic acids are important drivers of stoichiometric variability in Synechococcus. Lastly, by comparing our data with field observations, our study has important ecological relevance as it provides a framework for understanding and predicting elemental ratios in ocean regions where small phytoplankton like Synechococcus dominates.
- growth-dependent changes