Zinc is an essential trace metal for oceanic primary producers with the highest concentrations in polar oceans. However, its role in the biological functioning and adaptive evolution of polar phytoplankton remains enigmatic. Here, we have applied a combination of evolutionary genomics, quantitative proteomics, co-expression analyses and cellular physiology to suggest that model polar phytoplankton species have a higher demand for zinc because of elevated cellular levels of zinc-binding proteins. We propose that adaptive expansion of regulatory zinc-finger protein families, co-expanded and co-expressed zinc-binding proteins families involved in photosynthesis and growth in these microalgal species and their natural communities were identified to be responsible for the higher zinc demand. The expression of their encoding genes in eukaryotic phytoplankton metatranscriptomes from pole-to-pole was identified to correlate not only with dissolved zinc concentrations in the upper ocean but also with temperature, suggesting that environmental conditions of polar oceans are responsible for an increased demand of zinc. These results suggest that zinc plays an important role in supporting photosynthetic growth in eukaryotic polar phytoplankton and that this has been critical for algal colonization of low-temperature polar oceans.