Nitrogen isotope fractionation in 12 species of marine phytoplankton during growth on nitrate

Joseph A. Needoba, N. A. Waser, P. J. Harrison, S. E. Calvert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

150 Scopus citations


The nitrogen isotopic composition of 12 species of marine phytoplankton were determined by isotope ratio mass spectrometry in order to investigate isotope fractionation associated with growth on nitrate. The species, representing diatoms, coccolithophores, dinoflagellates, green algae, and cyanobacteria, were grown in batch cultures in artificial seawater under the same laboratory conditions of constant light and temperature. The species (with isotope fractionation values in parenthesis) were: Thalassiosira weissflogii (6.2 ± 0.4‰); Chaetoceros simplex (2.7 ± 0.3‰); Ditylum brightwellii (3.3 ± 0.4‰); Skeletonema costatum (2.7 ± 0.3‰); Phaeodactylum tricornutum (4.8 ± 0.3‰); Emiliania huxleyi (4.5 ± 0.2‰), Isochrysis galbana (3.2 ± 0.4‰); Pavlova lutheri, (3.6 ± 0.5‰); Amphidinium carterae (2.2 ± 0.3‰); Prorocentrum minimum (2.5 ± 0.3‰); Dunaliella tertiolecta (2.2 ± 0.2‰); and Synechococcus sp. (5.4 ± 0.6‰). There was no relationship between isotope fractionation and organism group, nor was there a direct effect of cell size or growth rate on the degree of isotope fractionation among all the groups. Overall, the results show that isotope fractionation during growth on nitrate is lower than values obtained from field samples (i.e. 4 to 9‰). These results indicate that there is no simple mechanism for describing differences in isotope fractionation between groups of phytoplankton, and that a physiological understanding of isotope fractionation during uptake and assimilation of nitrate is needed to properly understand the δ15N signal generated by phytoplankton in the ocean.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)81-91
Number of pages11
JournalMarine Ecology Progress Series
StatePublished - Jun 24 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Batch culture
  • Marine phytoplankton
  • N:N
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrogen isotope fractionation
  • Stable isotopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology


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