Bacterioplankton: A Sink for Carbon in a Coastal Marine Plankton Community

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Science  16 May 1986:
Vol. 232, Issue 4752, pp. 865-867
DOI: 10.1126/science.232.4752.865


Recent determinations of high production rates (up to 30 percent of primary production in surface waters) implicate free-living marine bacterioplankton as a link in a "microbial loop" that supplements phytoplankton as food for herbivores. An enclosed water column of 300 cubic meters was used to test the microbial loop hypothesis by following the fate of carbon-14—labeled bacterioplankton for over 50 days. Only 2 percent of the label initially fixed from carbon-14—labeled glucose by bacteria was present in larger organisms after 13 days, at which time about 20 percent of the total label added remained in the particulate fraction. Most of the label appeared to pass directly from particles smaller than 1 micrometer (heterotrophic bacterioplankton and some bacteriovores) to respired labeled carbon dioxide or to regenerated dissolved organic carbon-14. Secondary (and, by implication, primary) production by organisms smaller than 1 micrometer may not be an important food source in marine food chains. Bacterioplankton can be a sink for carbon in planktonic food webs and may serve principally as agents of nutrient regeneration rather than as food.