Marine phytoplankton have developed the remarkable ability to tightly regulate the concentration of free calcium ions in the intracellular cytosol at a level of ∼ 0.1 μmol L-1 in the presence of seawater Ca2+ concentrations of 10 mmol L-1. The low cytosolic calcium ion concentration is of utmost importance for proper cell signalling function. While the regulatory mechanisms responsible for the tight control of intracellular Ca2+ concentration are not completely understood, phytoplankton taxonomic groups appear to have evolved different strategies, which may affect their ability to cope with changes in seawater Ca2+ concentrations in their environment on geological timescales. For example, the Cretaceous (145 to 66 Ma), an era known for the high abundance of coccolithophores and the production of enormous calcium carbonate deposits, exhibited seawater calcium concentrations up to 4 times present-day levels. We show that calcifying coccolithophore species (Emiliania huxleyi, Gephyrocapsa oceanica and Coccolithus braarudii) are able to maintain their relative fitness (in terms of growth rate and photosynthesis) at simulated Cretaceous seawater calcium concentrations, whereas these rates are severely reduced under these conditions in some non-calcareous phytoplankton species (Chaetoceros sp., Ceratoneis closterium and Heterosigma akashiwo). Most notably, this also applies to a non-calcifying strain of E. huxleyi which displays a calcium sensitivity similar to the non-calcareous species. We hypothesize that the process of calcification in coccolithophores provides an efficient mechanism to alleviate cellular calcium poisoning and thereby offered a potential key evolutionary advantage, responsible for the proliferation of coccolithophores during times of high seawater calcium concentrations. The exact function of calcification and the reason behind the highly ornate physical structures of coccoliths remain elusive.
Müller, M. N., Barcelos E Ramos, J., Schulz, K. G., Riebesell, U., Kaźmierczak, J., Gallo, F., … Hallegraeff, G. M. (2015). Phytoplankton calcification as an effective mechanism to alleviate cellular calcium poisoning. Biogeosciences, 12(21), 6493–6501. https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-12-6493-2015