Abstract: Ribosomal RNA (rRNA) has been regarded as a proxy for metabolic activity and population growth in microbes, but the limitations and assumptions of this approach should be better defined, particularly in eukaryotic microalgae. In this study, the 18S rRNA/rDNA ratio of a marine diatom, Skeletonema tropicum, was examined in batch and semi‐continuous cultures subjected to low nitrogen and phosphorus treatments at a temperature of 20 °C. In the semi‐continuous cultures, the measured 18S rRNA/rDNA ratio ranged from 4.0 × 102 to 5.0 × 103, and the logarithmic form of this ratio increased linearly with the population growth rate under both low nitrogen and low phosphorus conditions. In batch cultures grown under low nitrogen or low phosphorus conditions, log (rRNA/rDNA) also increased linearly with growth rate when the latter ranged between −0.4 and 1.5 day−1. The 18S rRNA/rDNA ratios of Skeletonema sampled from in the southern East China Sea were substantially lower than measured from laboratory cultures. Among the field samples, ratios obtained at a coastal station were higher than those obtained farther offshore. These results imply higher growth rate at the coastal station, but the influences of other factors, such as cell size and temperature, cannot be ruled out.