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  • Writer's pictureAudrey Enbom

The Super-Hero of the Sea; Phytoplankton

By Audrey Enbom, 06/27/2023

microscopic photo of phytoplankton
Phytoplankton via The Australian Museum

Phytoplankton; something you certainly don't think about everyday (unless perhaps you are a marine biologist)! You may be thinking, "what is a phytoplankton?" and "How do you even pronounce that?" To answer the first question, phytoplankton are microscopic, plant-like organisms that float in aquatic ecosystems and play a crucial role in the food chain and oxygen production. Regarding the second question, phytoplankton is pronounced {fai-tow-plank-tun}.

So what makes these little organisms so special? What make them important enough to earn the "Super Hero" name as mentioned in the title? Surprisingly, these little guys actually have many seemingly magical qualities and abilities that make them actually completely worthy of this bosterous nickname. The 'superpower' you are most likely familiar with is phytoplanktons ability to photosynthesize, which has led to it being the base of the entire marine food web.

Phytoplankton serve as the foundation of the marine food web. They are able to hold this position since they are able to photosynthesize! In simple terms, Photosynthesis is the process by which plants, algae, and some bacteria convert sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into energy-rich sugars and oxygen. They are able to convert sunlight and nutrients, such as carbon dioxide and dissolved minerals, into energy-rich compounds. This process sustains their growth and reproduction, and the growth and reproduction of every other marine creature as they are the autotroph of the food web! As phytoplankton multiply, they become a significant food source for zooplankton, which are another type slightly larger type of microorganism that feed on phytoplankton. Zooplankton are then consumed by larger organisms such as small fish, which are then eaten by larger predators. This transfer of energy continues up and up the food chain, therefore supporting the entire ecosystem. Phytoplankton support every marine creature, from small marine organisms to large marine mammals and birds. Without phytoplankton, the marine food web would collapse!

Besides being extremely important to our ocean ecosystem, phytoplankton are also just insanely mystical creatures! In fact, phytoplankton are responsible for one of the most gorgeous night time phenomenons on earth; the 'electric blue waves' that wash across the glowing beach during a phytoplankton bloom!

Phytoplankton bloom on Puerto Ricos shores
Photo of phytoplankton bloom via Colourbox/P. Grebekin.

This stunning image is not dipicting a smashed glowstick, it actually is a real picture of a phytoplankton bloom at night on the shore of Puerto Rico. Phytoplankton are bioluminescent, meaning they appear to glow. This is due to a phenomenon known as chemiluminescence. This process involves the activation of light-emitting chemicals within their cells, such as luciferin and luciferase. The exact reasons behind this glow is undetermined, but it is believed to serve several purposes. Bioluminescence in phytoplankton may act as a defense mechanism, startling or deterring predators. It may also attract larger organisms that feed on the predators, which would indirectly protect the phytoplankton. Furthermore, its possible some species of phytoplankton could use bioluminescence for reproductive purposes, emitting light to attract partners. Overall, this glowing phenomenon likely enhances their survival and ecological interactions in the marine environment. Not only is this bioluminescent ability super smart, its also obviously beautiful! Bioluminescense is surprisingly a pretty common trait of deep sea creatures, so phytoplankton blooms as depicted are quite a treat for humans as they give us a taste of the deep sea.

A more recently descovered phytoplankton super power is its ability to change the color of clouds! While that last sentence sort of a joke and definitely a bit of a stretch, its actually more true then you would think it is. On May 1st, 2023, Scientific American writer Leonard D. wrote an article called Plankton Generate A Cloudy Shield Over the Antarctic. (Scientific American. Vol 328, Issue 5: 14-15) The article explained the reason behind a phenomenon that had been occurring in the Arctic where clouds where whiter there then in the North for no apparent reason! The article explains recent studies that have shed light on the phenomenon of whiter clouds near Antarctica, and then linking it to the presence of phytoplankton. In one of the studies that was used to reach this conclusion, satellite data was collected for five years that revealed that clouds in proximity to Antarctica appeared whiter compared to those farther north. This discovery prompted further investigation, which led to the discovery that the abundance of phytoplankton in Arctic regions, and a byproduct of their metabolism called dimethyl sulfide, played a role in creating these unusually white clouds!

White Antarctic clouds due to phytoplankton
White clouds via @theU

Dimethyl sulfide, which is a byproduct released by phytoplankton, react with atmospheric gases to form small aerosol particles that cause the cloud's unusual whiteness. The higher concentration of these smaller particles results in a larger surface area for sunlight to reflect off, giving the clouds their distinct appearance. In contrast, clouds in northern regions contain fewer and larger particles, leading to a smaller overall surface area. Additionally, the studies found a correlation between cloud whiteness and seasonal variations in phytoplankton populations.

The findings emphasize the importance of considering phytoplankton's influence in general, and specifically when developing climate models. It adds to the growing understanding of the multifaceted roles played by phytoplankton. These findings highlight the fascinating and significant contributions of phytoplankton.

In conclusion, the article celebrates the remarkable nature of phytoplankton and their un-expecting impact on the climate. Its an extremely fascinating article, and makes me very glad to have a Scientific American subscription.

I actually wrote a short report on this article for my Marine Biology class, which you can read here if you please! Its a nice little summary of the article, and perhaps a small amount of gushing about phytoplankton.

I hope after having read this article you are able to reflect on how cool phytoplankton actually are. Not only are they the baseline of our marine environment and therefore practically necessary to human survival, but also super gorgeous and the reason for a lot of very interesting phenomenons!


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