Extreme diversity in noncalcifying haptophytes explains a major pigment paradox in open oceans

Hui Liu, Ian Probert, Julia Uitz, Hervé Claustre, Stéphane Aris-Brosou, Miguel Frada, Fabrice Not, Colomban De Vargas*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

235 Scopus citations


The current paradigm holds that cyanobacteria, which evolved oxygenic photosynthesis more than 2 billion years ago, are still the major light harvesters driving primary productivity in open oceans. Here we show that tiny unicellular eukaryotes belonging to the photosynthetic lineage of the Haptophyta are dramatically diverse and ecologically dominant in the planktonic photic realm. The use of Haptophyta-specific primers and PCR conditions adapted for GC-rich genomes circumvented biases inherent in classical genetic approaches to exploring environmental eukaryotic biodiversity and led to the discovery of hundreds of unique haptophyte taxa in 5 clone libraries from subpolar and subtropical oceanic waters. Phylogenetic analyses suggest that this diversity emerged in Paleozoic oceans, thrived and diversified in the permanently oxygenated Mesozoic Panthalassa, and currently comprises thousands of ribotypic species, belonging primarily to low-abundance and ancient lineages of the "rare biosphere." This extreme biodiversity coincides with the pervasive presence in the photic zone of the world ocean of 19′- hexanoyloxyfucoxanthin (19-Hex), an accessory photosynthetic pigment found exclusively in chloroplasts of haptophyte origin. Our new estimates of depth-integrated relative abundance of 19-Hex indicate that haptophytes dominate the chlorophyll a-normalized phytoplankton standing stock in modern oceans. Their ecologic and evolutionary success, arguably based on mixotrophy, may have significantly impacted the oceanic carbon pump. These results add to the growing evidence that the evolution of complex microbial eukaryotic cells is a critical force in the functioning of the biosphere.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)12803-12808
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - 4 Aug 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • Eukaryotic biodiversity
  • Haptophyta
  • Photosynthesis
  • Protistan biodiversity


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