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The ocean carbon cycle is tightly linked with the cycles of the major nutrient elements nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon. It is therefore likely that enrichment of the ocean with anthropogenic CO2 and attendant acidification will have large consequences for marine nutrient biogeochemistry, and for the microbes that mediate many key nutrient transformations. The best available evidence suggests that the nitrogen cycle may respond strongly to higher CO2 through increases in global N2 fixation and possibly denitrification, as well as potential decreases in nitrification. These trends could cause nitrification to become a nitrogen cycle "bottleneck," by increasing the flux of N2 fixed into ammonium while decreasing the fraction being oxidized to nitrate and nitrate. The consequences could include reduced supplies of oxidized nitrogen substrates to denitrifiers, lower levels of nitrate-supported new primary production, and expansion of the regenerated production system accompanied by shifts in current phytoplankton communities. The phosphorus and silicon cycles seem less likely to be directly affected by enhanced CO2 conditions, but will undoubtedly respond indirectly to changing carbon and nitrogen biogeochemistry. A review of culture experiments that examined the effects of increased CO2 on elemental ratios of phytoplankton suggests that for most cyanobacteria and eukaryotes, C:N and N:P ratios will either remain at Redfield values or increase substantially. Natural plankton community CO2 manipulation experiments show much more mixed outcomes, with both increases and decreases in C:N and N:P ratios reported at future CO2 levels. We conclude our review with projections of overall trends in the cycles of nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon over the next century as they respond to the steady accumulation of fossil-fuel derived CO2 in a rapidly changing ocean.

Original Publication Citation

Hutchins, D. A., Mulholland, M. R., & Fu, F. X. (2009). Nutrient cycles and marine microbes in a CO2-enriched ocean. Oceanography, 22(4), 128-145.


E-8480-2011, D-3301-2013,,