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Limnology & Oceanography: Methods








The use of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as a universal biomass indicator is built on the premise that ATP concentration tracks biomass rather than the physiological condition of cells. However, reportedly high variability in ATP in response to environmental conditions is the main reason the method has not found widespread application. To test possible sources of this variability, we used the diatom Thalassiosira weissflogii as a model and manipulated its growth rate through nutrient limitation and through exposure to three different temperatures (15°C, 20°C, and 25°C). We simplified the ATP protocol with hot‐water or chemical extraction methods, modified a commercially available luciferin‐luciferase assay, and employed single‐photon counting in a scintillation counter, all of which increased sensitivity and throughput. Per‐cell ATP levels remained relatively constant despite changes in growth rates by approximately 10‐fold in the batch culture (i.e., nutrient limitation) experiments, and approximately 2‐fold in response to temperature. The re‐examination of related literature values revealed that average cellular ATP levels differed little among taxonomic groups of aquatic microbes, even at the domain level, and correlated well with bulk properties such as elemental carbon or nitrogen. Fulfilling multiple cellular functions in addition to being the universal energy currency requires ATP to be maintained in a millimolar concentration range. Consequently, ATP relates directly to live cytoplasm volume, while elemental carbon and nitrogen are constrained by an indeterminate pool of detrital material and intracellular storage compounds. The ATP‐biomass indicator is sensitive, economical, and can be readily standardized among laboratories and across environments.


© 2021 the authors.

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.

Original Publication Citation

Bochdansky, A. B., Stouffer, A. N., & Washington, N. N. (2021). Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as a metric of microbial biomass in aquatic systems: new simplified protocols, laboratory validation, and a reflection on data from the literature. Limnology & Oceanography: Methods, 19(2), 115-131.