Ecosystem models often rely on heuristic descriptions of autotroph growth that fail to reproduce various stationary and dynamic states of phytoplankton cellular composition observed in laboratory experiments. Here, we present the integration of an advanced phytoplankton growth model within a coupled 3-dimensional physical-biogeochemical model, and the implementation of the model system to the Southern North Sea (SNS) defined on a relatively high resolution (~ 1.5–4.5 km) curvilinear grid. The autotrophic growth model, recently introduced by Wirtz and Kerimoglu (2016), is built up on a set of novel concepts for the allocation of internal resources and operation of cellular metabolism. The coupled model system consists of the general estuarine transport model (GETM) as the hydrodynamical driver, a lower trophic level model and a simple sediment diagenesis model. We force the model system with realistic atmospheric and riverine fluxes, background turbidity caused by suspended particulate matter and open ocean boundary conditions. For a simulation for the period 2000–2010, we show that the model system satisfactorily reproduces the physical and biogeochemical states of the system, as inferred from comparisons against data from long-term monitoring stations, sparse measurements, continuous transects, and remote sensing data. In particular, the model shows high skill both in coastal and off shore waters, and captures the steep gradients in nutrient and chlorophyll concentrations observed prevalently across the coastal transition zone. We show that the cellular chlorophyll to carbon ratio show significant seasonal and lateral variability, the latter amplifying the steepness of the transitional chlorophyll gradient, thus, pointing to the relevance of resolving the physiological acclimation processes for an accurate description of biogeochemical fluxes.