Carbon isotope fractionation by marine phytoplankton in culture: The effects of CO2 concentration, pH, temperature, and species

Kenneth R. Hinga, Michael A. Arthur, Michael E.Q. Pilson, Dania Whitaker

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Closed cultures of marine phytoplankton were established under variable conditions of CO2 concentration, temperature, growth rate (by light limitation), and pH (but with nearly identical [CO2aq]) in order to assess the relative influence of these variables on the extent of carbon isotope fractionation relative to dissolved inorganic carbon sources. Culture biomass was not allowed to increase beyond levels that would significantly affect the dissolved carbon system in the closed cultures. In experiments with Skeletonema costatum and Emiliania huxleyi, increasing CO2 concentrations led to increased carbon isotope discrimination (resulting in organic matter progressively depleted in δ13C, i.e., a greater, more negative ϵp). ϵp values for E. huxleyi were 8–10‰ less than for S. costatum under identical conditions. For the S. costatum cultures, there was nearly a 20 ‰ range in [CO2aq]‐dependent ϵp. The effect was nonlinear with a leveling off at high [CO2aq]. Over a pH range of 7.5–8.3 but at a constant [CO2aq] there was a variation in carbon isotope fractionation by S. costatum of about 9 ‰ with a minimum at pH 7.8–7.9. There was a temperature effect of ∼8‰ on fractionation even after equilibrium temperature dependency of δ13C of CO2aq was taken into account. No growth rate effect was found for S. costatum over a modest range of growth rates. Culture experiments used to determine the carbon isotope fractionation by phytoplankton species must be conducted under well‐defined conditions of temperature, pH, and CO2 concentrations. Hindcasts of ancient atmospheric pCO2 from measurements of δ13C of organic carbon in marine sediments will require careful calibration because of the variety of possible factors that influence δ13Corg.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-102
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Biogeochemical Cycles
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1994

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Global and Planetary Change
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Atmospheric Science


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