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Diagrams of some typical phytoplankton

Phytoplankton are the autotrophic component of the plankton that drift in the open sea. The name comes from the Greek terms, phyton or "plant" and πλαγκτος ("planktos"), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter".[1] Most phytoplankton are too small to be individually seen with the unaided eye. However, when present in high enough numbers, they may appear as a green discoloration of the water due to the presence of chlorophyll within their cells (although the actual color may vary with the species of phytoplankton present).


Phytoplankton SoAtlantic 20060215

Phytoplankton bloom in the South Atlantic (February 15, 2006) seen from space

Phytoplankton, like plants, obtain energy through a process called photosynthesis, and so must live in the well-lit surface layer (termed the euphotic zone) of an ocean, sea, or lake. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton (and terrestrial plants) are responsible for much of the oxygen present in the Earth's atmosphere. Their cumulative energy fixation in carbon compounds (primary production) is the basis for the vast majority of oceanic and some freshwater food chains (chemosynthesis is a notable exception). As a side note, one of the more remarkable food-chains in the ocean — remarkable because of the small number of links — is that of phytoplankton fed on by krill (a type of shrimp) fed on by baleen whales.

Aside from light, phytoplankton are also crucially dependent on the availability of nutrients for growth. These are primarily macronutrients such as nitrate, phosphate or silicic acid, whose availability is governed by the balance between the so-called biological pump and upwelling of deep, nutrient-rich waters. However, across large regions of the World Ocean such as the Southern Ocean, phytoplankton are also limited by the availability of the micronutrient iron. This has led to some scientists advocating iron fertilization as a means to counteract the accumulation of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.

There is evidence that the rate of growth of phytoplankton, ocean primary productivity, has decreased since the 1980s. This is possibly due to a decrease in iron bearing dust, aeolian dust being depositing in the open ocean due to improved conservation practices in North America and Eurasia. [2] If this is true, the currently observed decrease would be only a continuation of the reduction in soil erosion which has continued, in the case of North America since the days of the Dust Bowl, and perhaps before. [3]


While almost all phytoplankton species are obligate Phototrophs, there are some that are mixotrophic and other, non-pigmented species that are actually heterotrophic (the latter are often viewed as zooplankton). Of these, the best known are dinoflagellate genera such as Noctiluca and Dinophysis, that obtain organic carbon by ingesting other organisms or detrital material.


Diatoms through the microscope


Ceratium hirundinella


The phytoplankton encompass all autotrophic microorganisms in aquatic foodwebs. They serve as the base of the marine food chain, providing an essential ecological function for all aquatic life. However, unlike the situation on land, where most autotrophs are plants, phytoplankton are a diverse group, incorporating protistan eukaryotes and both eubacterial and archaebacterial prokaryotes.

In terms of numbers, the most important groups of phytoplankton include the diatoms, cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates, although many other groups of algae are represented. One group, the coccolithophorids, is responsible (in part) for the release of significant amounts of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) into the atmosphere. DMS is converted to sulfate and these sulfate molecules act as cloud condensation nuclei, increasing general cloud cover. In oligotrophic oceanic regions such as the Sargasso Sea or the South Pacific, phytoplankton is dominated by the small sized cells, called picoplankton, mostly composed of cyanobacteria (Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus) and picoeucaryotes such as Micromonas.


  1. Thurman, H. V. (1997). Introductory Oceanography. New Jersey, USA: Prentice Hall College.
  2. "Ocean Plant Life Slows Down and Absorbs Less Carbon", NASA, September 16, 2003
  3. Comment by Fred Bauder

See alsoEdit

External linksEdit

Adapted from the Wikipedia article, "Phytoplankton"

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