From cell size and first principles to structure and function of unicellular plankton communities

K. H. Andersen*, A. W. Visser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

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Here we review, synthesize, and analyse the size-based approach to model unicellular plankton cells and communities. We first review how cell size influences processes of the individual the cell: uptake of dissolved nutrients and dissolved organic carbon, phototrophy, phagotrophy, and metabolism. We parameterise processes primarily from first principles, using a synthesis of existing data only when needed, and show how these processes determine minimum and maximum cell size and limiting resource concentrations. The cell level processes scale directly up to the structure and function of the entire unicellular plankton ecosystem, from heterotrophic bacteria to zooplankton. The structure is described by the Sheldon size spectrum and by the emergent trophic strategies. We develop an analytical approximate solution of the biomass size spectrum and show how the trophic strategies of osmotrophy, light- and nutrient-limited phototrophy, mixotrophy, phagotrophy depend on the resource environment. We further develop expressions to quantify the functions of the plankton community: production, respiration and losses, and carbon available to production of higher trophic levels, and show how the plankton community responds to changes in temperature and grazing from higher trophic levels. We finally discuss strengths and limitations of size-based representations and models of plankton communities and which additional trait axes will improve the representation of plankton functional diversity.
Original languageEnglish
Article number102995
JournalProgress in Oceanography
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • Cell size
  • Traits
  • Plankton
  • DOC
  • Sheldon
  • Mixotrophy


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