The relative biomass of autotrophs (vascular plants, macroalgae, microphytobenthos, phytoplankton) in shallow aquatic ecosystems is thought to be controlled by nutrient inputs and underwater irradiance. Widely accepted conceptual models indicate that this is the case both in marine and freshwater systems. In this paper we examine four case studies and test whether these models generally apply. We also identify other complex interactions among the autotrophs that may influence ecosystem response to cultural eutrophication. The marine case studies focus on macroalgae and its interactions with sediments and vascular plants. The freshwater case studies focus on interactions between phytoplankton, epiphyton, and benthic microalgae. In Waquoit Bay, MA (estuary), controlled experiments documented that blooms of macroalgae were responsible for the loss of eelgrass beds at nutrient-enriched locations. Macroalgae covered eelgrass and reduced irradiance to the extent that the plants could not maintain net growth. In Hog Island Bay, VA (estuary), a dense lawn of macroalgae covered the bottom sediments. There was reduced sediment-water nitrogen exchange when the algae were actively growing and high nitrogen release during algal senescence. In Lakes Brobo (West Africa) and Okeechobee (FL), there were dramatic seasonal changes in the biomass and phosphorus content of planktonic versus attached algae, and these changes were coupled with changes in water level and abiotic turbidity. Deeper water and/or greater turbidity favored dominance by phytoplankton. In Lake Brobo there also was evidence that phytoplankton growth was stimulated following a die-off of vascular plants. The case studies from Waquoit Bay and Lake Okeechobee support conceptual models of succession from vascular plants to benthic algae to phytoplankton along gradients of increasing nutrients and decreasing under-water irradiance. The case studies from Hog Island Bay and Lake Brobo illustrate additional effects (modified sediment-water nutrient fluxes, allelopathy or nutrient release during plant senescence) that could play a role in ecosystem response to nutrient stress.