Probing the Bioavailability of Dissolved Iron to Marine Eukaryotic Phytoplankton Using In Situ Single Cell Iron Quotas

Yeala Shaked*, Benjamin S. Twining*, Alessandro Tagliabue, Maria T. Maldonado

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


We present a new approach for quantifying the bioavailability of dissolved iron (dFe) to oceanic phytoplankton. Bioavailability is defined using an uptake rate constant (kin-app) computed by combining data on: (a) Fe content of individual in situ phytoplankton cells; (b) concurrently determined seawater dFe concentrations; and (c) growth rates estimated from the PISCES model. We examined 930 phytoplankton cells, collected between 2002 and 2016 from 45 surface stations during 11 research cruises. This approach is only valid for cells that have upregulated their high-affinity Fe uptake system, so data were screened, yielding 560 single cell kin-app values from 31 low-Fe stations. We normalized kin-app to cell surface area (S.A.) to account for cell-size differences. The resulting bioavailability proxy (kin-app/S.A.) varies among cells, but all values are within bioavailability limits predicted from defined Fe complexes. In situ dFe bioavailability is higher than model Fe-siderophore complexes and often approaches that of highly available inorganic Fe′. Station averaged kin-app/S.A. are also variable but show no systematic changes across location, temperature, dFe, and phytoplankton taxa. Given the relative consistency of kin-app/S.A. among stations (ca. five-fold variation), we computed a grand-averaged dFe availability, which upon normalization to cell carbon (C) yields kin-app/C of 42,200 ± 11,000 L mol C−1 d−1. We utilize kin-app/C to calculate dFe uptake rates and residence times in low Fe oceanic regions. Finally, we demonstrate the applicability of kin-app/C for constraining Fe uptake rates in earth system models, such as those predicting climate mediated changes in net primary production in the Fe-limited Equatorial Pacific.

Original languageAmerican English
Article numbere2021GB006979
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021. The Authors.


  • iron bioavailability
  • iron limited phytoplankton
  • iron uptake rates
  • single cell iron quota
  • standardized proxy for availability


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