Modeling the metabolic evolution of mixotrophic phytoplankton in response to rising ocean surface temperatures



Climate change is expected to lead to warming in ocean surface temperatures which will have unequal effects on the rates of photosynthesis and heterotrophy. As a result of this changing metabolic landscape, directional phenotypic evolution will occur, with implications that cascade up to the ecosystem level. While mixotrophic phytoplankton, organisms that combine photosynthesis and heterotrophy to meet their energetic and nutritional needs, are expected to become more heterotrophic with warmer temperatures due to heterotrophy increasing at a faster rate than photosynthesis, it is unclear how evolution will influence how these organisms respond to warmer temperatures. In this study, we used adaptive dynamics to model the consequences of temperature-mediated increases in metabolic rates for the evolution of mixotrophic phytoplankton, focusing specifically on phagotrophic mixotrophs.


We find that mixotrophs tend to evolve to become more reliant on phagotrophy as temperatures rise, leading to reduced prey abundance through higher grazing rates. However, if prey abundance becomes too low, evolution favors greater reliance on photosynthesis. These responses depend upon the trade-off that mixotrophs experience between investing in photosynthesis and phagotrophy. Mixotrophs with a convex trade-off maintain mixotrophy over the greatest range of temperatures; evolution in these “generalist” mixotrophs was found to exacerbate carbon cycle impacts, with evolving mixotrophs exhibiting increased sensitivity to rising temperature.


Our results show that mixotrophs may respond more strongly to climate change than predicted by phenotypic plasticity alone due to evolutionary shifts in metabolic investment. However, the type of metabolic trade-off experienced by mixotrophs as well as ecological feedback on prey abundance may ultimately limit the extent of evolutionary change along the heterotrophy-phototrophy spectrum.

ICB Affiliated Authors

Logan M. Gonzalez, Stephen R. Proulx and Holly V. Moeller
Peer-Reviewed Article
BMC Ecology and Evolution