U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Science Advisory Board
Background Information

Document NameElement ratios in aquatic food webs
Document AuthorTurner, R.E.
Short DescriptionEstuaries 25: 694-703.
CategorySubgroup 1: Characterization of the Cause(s) of Hypoxia
Publication Year2002

Abstract: Organic matter is the result of concentrating a few non-metals that are relatively rare in the earth's crust. Most of these essential elements are in a rough proportionality within phylogenetic groupings. Life is thus working against a concentration gradient to extract or accumulate these elements, and this metabolic work is accomplished in interrelated and often subtle ways for many other elements. The physiological requirement to sustain these elemental ratios (commonly discussed in terms of the N:P ratios, but also C:N, C:P, and Si:N ratios) constrains organization at the cellular, organism, and community level. Humans, as geochemical engineers, significantly influence the spatial and temporal distribution of elements and, consequently, their ratios. Examples of these influences include the changing dissolved Si: nitrate and the dissolved nitrate: phosphate atomic ratios of water entering coastal waters in many areas of the world. Human society may find that some desirable or dependent ecosystem interactions are compromised, rather than enhanced, as we alter these elemental ratios. Human-modulated changes in nutrient ratios that cause an apparent increase in harmful algal blooms may compromise the diatom-zooplankton-fish food web. It will be useful to improve our understanding of aquatic ecosystems and for management purposes if the assiduous attention on one element (e.g., N or P) was expanded to include the realities of these mutual interdependencies.