Saturating relationship between phytoplankton growth rate and nutrient concentration explained by macromolecular allocation

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Phytoplankton account for about a half of photosynthesis in the world, making them a key player in the ecological and biogeochemical systems. One of the key traits of phytoplankton is their growth rate because it indicates their productivity and affects their competitive capability. The saturating relationship between phytoplankton growth rate and environmental nutrient concentration has been widely observed yet the mechanisms behind the relationship remain elusive. Here we use a mechanistic model and metadata of phytoplankton to show that the saturating relationship between growth rate and nitrate concentration can be interpreted by intracellular macromolecular allocation. At low nitrate levels, the diffusive nitrate transport linearly increases with the nitrate concentration, while the internal nitrogen requirement increases with the growth rate, leading to a non-linear increase in the growth rate with nitrate. This increased nitrogen requirement is due to the increased allocation to biosynthetic and photosynthetic molecules. The allocation to these molecules reaches a maximum at high nitrate concentration and the growth rate ceases to increase despite high nitrate availability due to carbon limitation. The produced growth rate and nitrate relationships are consistent with the data of phytoplankton across taxa. Our study provides a macromolecular interpretation of the widely observed growth-nutrient relationship and highlights that the key control of the phytoplankton growth exists within the cell.

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Current Research in Microbial Sciences