Primary production


In ecology, primary production is the synthesis of organic compounds from atmospheric or aqueous carbon dioxide. It principally occurs through the process of photosynthesis, which uses light as its source of energy, but it also occurs through chemosynthesis, which uses the oxidation or reduction of inorganic chemical compounds as its source of energy. Almost all life on Earth relies directly or indirectly on primary production. The organisms responsible for primary production are known as primary producers or autotrophs, and form the base of the food chain. In terrestrial ecoregions, these are mainly plants, while in aquatic ecoregions algae predominate in this role. Ecologists distinguish primary production as either net or gross, the former accounting for losses to processes such as cellular respiration, the latter not.
On the land, almost all primary production is now performed by vascular plants, with a small fraction coming from algae and non-vascular plants such as mosses and liverworts. Before the evolution of vascular plants, non-vascular plants likely played a more significant role. Primary production on land is a function of many factors, but principally local hydrology and temperature (the latter covaries to an extent with light, specifically photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), the source of energy for photosynthesis). While plants cover much of the Earth's surface, they are strongly curtailed wherever temperatures are too extreme or where necessary plant resources (principally water and PAR) are limiting, such as deserts or polar regions.
In a reversal of the pattern on land, in the oceans, almost all photosynthesis is performed by algae, with a small fraction contributed by vascular plants and other groups. Algae encompass a diverse range of organisms, ranging from single floating cells to attached seaweeds. They include photoautotrophs from a variety of groups. Eubacteria are important photosynthetizers in both oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems, and while some archaea are phototrophic, none are known to utilise oxygen-evolving photosynthesis. A number of eukaryotes are significant contributors to primary production in the ocean, including green algae, brown algae and red algae, and a diverse group of unicellular groups. Vascular plants are also represented in the ocean by groups such as the seagrasses.
Mixing also plays an important role in the limitation of primary production by nutrients. Inorganic nutrients, such as nitrate, phosphate and silicic acid are necessary for phytoplankton to synthesise their cells and cellular machinery. Because of gravitational sinking of particulate material (such as plankton, dead or fecal material), nutrients are constantly lost from the photic zone, and are only replenished by mixing or upwelling of deeper water. This is exacerbated where summertime solar heating and reduced winds increases vertical stratification and leads to a strong thermocline, since this makes it more difficult for wind mixing to entrain deeper water. Consequently, between mixing events, primary production (and the resulting processes that leads to sinking particulate material) constantly acts to consume nutrients in the mixed layer, and in many regions this leads to nutrient exhaustion and decreased mixed layer production in the summer (even in the presence of abundant light). However, as long as the photic zone is deep enough, primary production may continue below the mixed layer where light-limited growth rates mean that nutrients are often more abundant.
Net photosynthesis in the water column is determined by the interaction between the photic zone and the mixed layer. Turbulent mixing by wind energy at the ocean's surface homogenises the water column vertically until the turbulence dissipates (creating the aforementioned mixed layer). The deeper the mixed layer, the lower the average amount of light intercepted by phytoplankton within it. The mixed layer can vary from being shallower than the photic zone, to being much deeper than the photic zone. When it is much deeper than the photic zone, this results in phytoplankton spending too much time in the dark for net growth to occur. The maximum depth of the mixed layer in which net growth can occur is called the critical depth. As long as there are adequate nutrients available, net primary production occurs whenever the mixed layer is shallower than the critical depth.