Marine algae perform approximately half of global carbon fixation, but their growth is often limited by the availability of phosphate or other nutrients 1,2 . As oceans warm, the area of phosphate-limited surface waters is predicted to increase, resulting in ocean desertification 3,4 . Understanding the responses of key eukaryotic phytoplankton to nutrient limitation is therefore critical 5,6 . We used advanced photo-bioreactors to investigate how the widespread marine green alga Micromonas commoda grows under transitions from replete nutrients to chronic phosphate limitation and subsequent relief, analysing photosystem changes and broad cellular responses using proteomics, transcriptomics and biophysical measurements. We find that physiological and protein expression responses previously attributed to stress are critical to supporting stable exponential growth when phosphate is limiting. Unexpectedly, the abundance of most proteins involved in light harvesting does not change, but an ancient light-harvesting-related protein, LHCSR, is induced and dissipates damaging excess absorbed light as heat throughout phosphate limitation. Concurrently, a suite of uncharacterized proteins with narrow phylogenetic distributions increase multifold. Notably, of the proteins that exhibit significant changes, 70 are not differentially expressed at the mRNA transcript level, highlighting the importance of post-transcriptional processes in microbial eukaryotes. Nevertheless, transcript-protein pairs with concordant changes were identified that will enable more robust interpretation of eukaryotic phytoplankton responses in the field from metatranscriptomic studies. Our results show that P-limited Micromonas responds quickly to a fresh pulse of phosphate by rapidly increasing replication, and that the protein network associated with this ability is composed of both conserved and phylogenetically recent proteome systems that promote dynamic phosphate homeostasis. That an ancient mechanism for mitigating light stress is central to sustaining growth during extended phosphate limitation highlights the possibility of interactive effects arising from combined stressors under ocean change, which could reduce the efficacy of algal strategies for optimizing marine photosynthesis. © 2018 The Author(s).