Allelopathy in phytoplankton - biochemical, ecological and evolutionary aspects

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article


It is considered self-evident that chemical interactions are a component of competition in terrestrial systems, but they are largely unknown in aquatic systems. In this review, we propose that chemical interactions, specifically allelopathy, are an important part of phytoplankton competition. Allelopathy, as defined here, applies only to the inhibitory effects of secondary metabolites produced by one species on the growth or physiological function of another phytoplankton species. A number of approaches are used to study allelopathy, but there is no standard methodology available. One of the methods used is cross-culturing, in which the cell-free filtrate of a donor alga is added to the medium of the target species. Another is to study the effect of cell extracts of unknown constituents, isolated exudates or purified allelochemicals on the growth of other algal species. There is a clear lack of controlled field experiments because few allelochemicals have been identified. Molecular methods will be important in future to study the expression and regulation of allelochemicals. Most of the identified allelochemicals have been described for cyanobacteria but some known toxins of marine dinoflagellates and freshwater cyanobacteria also have an allelochemical effect. The mode of action of allelochemicals spans a wide range. The most common effect is to cause cell lysis, blistering, or growth inhibition. The factors that affect allelochemical production have not been studied much, although nutrient limitation, pH, and temperature appear to have an effect. The evolutionary aspects of allelopathy remain largely unknown, but we hypothesize that the producers of allelochemicals should gain a competitive advantage over other phytoplankton. Finally, we discuss the possibility of using allelochemicals to combat harmful algal blooms (HABs). Allelopathic agents are used for biological control in agriculture, e.g. green manures to control soil diseases in Australia, but they have not yet been applied in the context of HABs. We suggest that phytoplankton allelochemicals have the potential for management of HABs in localized areas.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Environmental Sciences
  • Ecology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)406-419
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2003
Publication categoryResearch