Resolving the Trophic Connection between Protistan Grazers and Mesozooplankton in Marine Food Webs Using Amino Acid-Specific Stable Isotope Analyses

Principal Investigator: 
Proposal Abstract: 

Energy dissipation and elemental cycling by protozoan consumers in lower trophic levels of ocean food webs are of sufficient magnitude, based on global estimates of the amount of primary production (~70%) consumed by protists, to strongly alter the efficiencies of material transfers to higher-level consumers and to export.  We presently know very little about these microbial food web steps, how they vary regionally or temporally, or how they might be altered by climate change.  Compound Specific Isotope Analysis of Amino Acids (CSIA-AA) offers an approach for advancing our understanding of microbial food web structure and trophic fluxes based on using the trophic positions (TP) of mesozooplankton as temporal integrators of the fluxes from direct feeding on phytoplankton and indirect transfers via protistan microzooplankton.  Preliminary laboratory experiments to test this idea have demonstrated that the standard application of the method, using the 15N of phenylalanine as the representative source AA for the primary producer baseline and glutamic acid (15Nglu) as the indicator AA for trophic enrichment, does not produce a measureable trophic-step signal for protistan grazers (i.e., the protistan grazing steps are invisible with 15Nglu).  However, the results have also shown that an alternative high-turnover AA, alanine, strongly enriches in protistan as well as metazoan consumers, and leads to substantially higher TP estimates of mesozooplankton in field-collected specimens than that based on 15Nglu.  In this research project, we will test the hypothesis that alanine (15Nala) provides a quantifiable and consistent index of trophic enrichment for protistan steps in marine food webs.  The research will involve three major elements.  First, controlled laboratory experiments will be conducted with chemostat systems to compare 15N enrichments of alanine to other AAs for a representative suite of ciliate and flagellate grazers feeding on phytoplankton, and to evaluate the two-step enrichment from phytoplankton via a protistan grazer to a suspension-feeding copepod.  Second, field-collected mesozooplankton from four distinct ecological regions of the Pacific Ocean will be analyzed by CSIA-AA to test the transfer of alanine enrichment through a metazoan trophic step (comparing suspension feeding species to primary carnivores) and to assess how the TP index differs with trophic structure over a broad range of ecological conditions.  Last, CSIA-AA assessments of TP for size-structured zooplankton will be integrated into inverse models of nitrogen flows in the four regions (equatorial Pacific, subtropical North Pacific, California Current and Costa Rica Dome) as a major constraint for resolving and comparing fluxes through the microbial food web over the range of ecological conditions.  A properly calibrated CSIA-AA assessment of mesozooplankton trophic position will provide a new and valuable approach for regional intercomparisons of lower-level food web structure, for assessing temporal and spatial trends in climate change, for ocean ecosystem model validation, and for better understanding of lower food-web energetic constraints on ocean fisheries.

Start and End Date: 
April 2013 to March 2016