Tracing the path of carbon export in the ocean though DNA sequencing of individual sinking particles

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Surface phytoplankton communities were linked with the carbon they export into the deep ocean by comparing 18 S rRNA gene sequence communities from surface seawater and individually isolated sinking particles. Particles were collected in sediment traps deployed at locations in the North Pacific subtropical gyre and the California Current. DNA was isolated from individual particles, bulk-collected trap particles, and the surface seawater. The relative sequence abundance of exported phytoplankton taxa in the surface water varied across functional groups and ecosystems. Of the sequences detected in sinking particles, about half were present in large (>300 μm), individually isolated particles and primarily belonged to taxa with small cell sizes (<50 µm). Exported phytoplankton taxa detected only in bulk trap samples, and thus presumably packaged in the smaller sinking size fraction, contained taxa that typically have large cell sizes (>500 μm). The effect of particle degradation on the detectable 18 S rRNA gene community differed across taxa, and differences in community composition among individual particles from the same location largely reflected differences in relative degradation state. Using these data and particle imaging, we present an approach that incorporates genetic diversity into mechanistic models of the ocean’s biological carbon pump, which will lead to better quantification of the ocean’s carbon cycle.

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ISME Journal