Send to

Choose Destination
See comment in PubMed Commons below
Met Ions Biol Syst. 2005;43:153-93.

Iron, phytoplankton growth, and the carbon cycle.

Author information

  • 1Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, Braun Hall, Stanford University, Stanford, California 94305-2115, USA.


Iron is an essential nutrient for all living organisms. Iron is required for the synthesis of chlorophyll and of several photosynthetic electron transport proteins and for the reduction of CO2, SO4(2-), and NO3(-) during the photosynthetic production of organic compounds. Iron concentrations in vast areas of the ocean are very low (<1 nM) due to the low solubility of iron in oxic seawater. Low iron concentrations have been shown to limit primary production rates, biomass accumulation, and ecosystem structure in a variety of open-ocean environments, including the equatorial Pacific, the subarctic Pacific and the Southern Ocean and even in some coastal areas. Oceanic primary production, the transfer of carbon dioxide into organic carbon by photosynthetic plankton (phytoplankton), is one process by which atmospheric CO2 can be transferred to the deep ocean and sequestered for long periods of time. Accordingly, iron limitation of primary producers likely plays a major role in the global carbon cycle. It has been suggested that variations in oceanic primary productivity, spurred by changes in the deposition of iron in atmospheric dust, control atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and hence global climate, over glacial-interglacial timescales. A contemporary application of this "iron hypothesis" promotes the large-scale iron fertilization of ocean regions as a means of enhancing the ability of the ocean to store anthropogenic CO2 and mitigate 21st century climate change. Recent in situ iron enrichment experiments in the HNLC regions, however, cast doubt on the efficacy and advisability of iron fertilization schemes. The experiments have confirmed the role of iron in regulating primary productivity, but resulted in only small carbon export fluxes to the depths necessary for long-term sequestration. Above all, these experiments and other studies of iron biogeochemistry over the last two decades have begun to illustrate the great complexity of the ocean system. Attempts to engineer this system are likely to provoke a similarly complex, unpredictable response.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PubMed Commons home

PubMed Commons

How to join PubMed Commons

    Supplemental Content

    Loading ...
    Support Center