Reduction of marine phytoplankton reproduction rates by copper and cadmium

Larry E. Brand, William G. Sunda, Robert R.L. Guillard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

415 Scopus citations


The reproduction rates of 38 clones of marine phytoplankton were measured in media in which free cupric ion activity was controlled at different levels using a NTA-cupric ion buffer system. The major trend among species in their resistance to copper toxicity was a phylogenetic one, with cyanobacteria being the most sensitive, diatoms the least sensitive, and coccolithophores and dinoflagellates intermediate in sensitivity. The reproduction rates of most of the cyanobacteria were reduced at cupric ion activities above 10-12 M, while most eukaryotic algae still had maximum reproduction rates at 10-11 M. Four species, Emiliana huxleyi (Lohm.) Hay & Mohler, Skeletonema costatum (Grev.) Cleve, Thalassiosira pseudonana (Hustedt) Hasle & Heimdal and Thalassiosira oceanica (Hustedt) Hasle were particularly resistant to copper, being able to reproduce well at the highest cupric ion activities tested, 10-9.5 M and 10-9.2 M. There was no major difference, however, between neritic and oceanic species in their sensitivity to copper. The sensitivity of 20 species of marine phytoplankton to free cadmium ion activity was measured in a similar manner using an NTA-cadmium ion buffer system. As observed with copper, the prokaryotic cyanobacteria were the most sensitive to cadmium toxicity, diatoms were the least sensitive, and coccolithophores and dinoflagellates were intermediate. All cyanobacteria tested were dead at a cadmium ion activity of 10-9.3 M whereas the reproduction rates of most of the eukaryotic algae were not reduced significantly until 10-8.3 M. Comparison of these data with natural concentrations in sea water implies that cadmium is not an important ecological factor in unpolluted waters but natural copper concentrations may inhibit the reproduction of some phytoplankton species, especially cyanobacteria, in upwelled sea water. Copper may influence the seasonal succession of species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)225-250
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1986


  • cadmium
  • copper
  • phytoplankton

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology


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