Authors: Martino E Malerba, Maria M Palacios, and Dustin J Marshall
Published in: Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Size determines the rate at which organisms acquire and use resources but it is unclear what size should be favoured under unpredictable resource regimes.
Some theories claim smaller organisms can grow faster following a resource pulse, whereas others argue larger species can accumulate more resources and maintain growth for longer periods between resource pulses. Testing these theories has relied on interspecific comparisons, which tend to confound body size with other life-history traits.
As a more direct approach, we used 280 generations of artificial selection to evolve a 10-fold difference in mean body size between small- and large-selected phytoplankton lineages of Dunaliella tertiolecta, while controlling for biotic and abiotic variables. We then quantified how body size affected the ability of this species to grow at nutrient-replete conditions and following periods of nitrogen or phosphorous deprivation.
Overall, smaller cells showed slower growth, lower storage capacity and poorer recovery from phosphorous depletion, as predicted by the ‘fasting endurance hypothesis’. However, recovery from nitrogen limitation was independent of size—a finding unanticipated by current theories.
Phytoplankton species are responsible for much of the global carbon fixation and projected trends of cell size decline could reduce primary productivity by lowering the ability of a cell to store resources.