Partitioning the relative importance of phylogeny and environmental conditions on phytoplankton fatty acids

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Essential fatty acids (EFA), which are primarily generated by phytoplankton, limit growth and reproduction in diverse heterotrophs. The biochemical composition of phytoplankton is well-known to be governed both by phylogeny and environmental conditions. Nutrients, light, salinity, and temperature all affect both phytoplankton growth and fatty acid composition. However, the relative importance of taxonomy and environment on algal fatty acid content has yet to be comparatively quantified, thus inhibiting predictions of changes to phytoplankton food quality in response to global environmental change. We compiled 1145 published marine and freshwater phytoplankton fatty acid profiles, consisting of 208 species from six major taxonomic groups, cultured in a wide range of environmental conditions, and used a multivariate distance-based linear model to quantify the total variation explained by each variable. Our results show that taxonomic group accounts for 3-4 times more variation in phytoplankton fatty acids than the most important growth condition variables. The results underscore that environmental conditions clearly affect phytoplankton fatty acid profiles, but also show that conditions account for relatively low variation compared to phylogeny. This suggests that the underlying mechanism determining basal food quality in aquatic habitats is primarily phytoplankton community composition, and allows for prediction of environmental-scale EFA dynamics based on phytoplankton community data. We used the compiled dataset to calculate seasonal dynamics of long-chain EFA (LCEFA; ≥C20 ɷ-3 and ɷ-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid) concentrations and ɷ-3:ɷ-6 EFA ratios in Lake Washington using a multi-decadal phytoplankton community time series. These analyses quantify temporal dynamics of algal-derived LCEFA and food quality in a freshwater ecosystem that has undergone large community changes as a result of shifting resource management practices, highlighting diatoms, cryptophytes and dinoflagellates as key sources of LCEFA. Moreover, the analyses indicate that future shifts towards cyanobacteria-dominated communities will result in lower LCEFA content in aquatic ecosystems.




Galloway, A. W. E., & Winder, M. (2015). Partitioning the relative importance of phylogeny and environmental conditions on phytoplankton fatty acids. PLoS ONE, 10(6).

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