The Insanely Important World of Phytoplankton



One phytoplankton cannot do too much, but so many of them actually control everything that we have: our food, our air that we breathe and our climate. They're so powerful.

Phyto Phyters! [rock music throughout] Microscopic warriors fighting for the sea.

These tiny titans, the Phyto Phyters are out to do battle on the seas. The evil Alexandrium

was up to his old schemes.

My saxitoxins will poison your precious shellfish.

You're no match for Dinophysis!

Dinophysis steals pigments from the Phyto Phyters, but Protoperidinium lights up the battle with its bioluminescence. Who will reign marine supreme?

Go, Emiliania!

Only the Phyto Phyters will decide the true fate of the seas. Each sold separately.

They're just insanely important. I mean, there's many things that are important, but these are insanely important. Plankton generally doesn't really mean like a taxonomic group of things. We think about mammals and then plants. Plankton are not that. Plankton are really defined by the way they live. Plankton means the wanderer in Greek. And these are just oceanic organisms that really just don't swim that fast. They can’t fight the ocean currents. It's a really nontraditional way of thinking about biology, in a sense.

Plankton, we can define traditionally, in zooplankton, so something that is kind of more animal-like and phytoplankton, something that is more plant-like. All phytoplankton does a process we call photosynthesis. They take carbon dioxide and carbon in an organic form, capture some of the sunlight and then produce our carbohydrates or just simply said, sugars. They now are carrying that Sun energy and push it into the food system of the ocean. And while they're doing all that stuff, they also produce the oxygen. So opposite from us, we inhale oxygen, exhale carbon dioxide. So that's why they're really important. That's why we love them so much. And that's why they're like really crucial for the whole life on the Earth.

Phytoplankton itself, its diversity is gigantic. I think there's like 10,000 species, and each of them has a specific role. Why is there so much diversity in something that is so teeny tiny? It's fantasy, science fiction, and horror comes together. I mean, it's just so beautiful.

But there are certain type of phytoplankton, called coccolithophores, and specifically the most famous one is Emiliania huxleyi. But they take this inorganic carbon to make that something like a shell, in which they live in. They’re calcium carbonate which they make, which is pretty much chalk. They make it in a shape of these hubcaps. And if you think about how teeny tiny

they are, they're like, you know, I don't know. I can put probably like 30 or 40 or 50 of them in the width of my hair. When they bloom, once they die, not only they take that normal like sugar carbon that they produce, but they also take the calcium carbonate, that inorganic, that chalky material down to the bottom of the ocean. So they're really, really good for exporting carbon, removing it from this contact with the atmosphere, which is really important when it comes to the flow of carbon in the whole Earth ecosystem, but also control of the carbon in the atmosphere.

So Alexandrium is a very specific type of phytoplankton. It's called a dinoflagellate. So it's kind of like maybe plant, maybe zooplankton, maybe this animal, maybe can be both, no? But one thing that it does, it makes this very, very, very, very powerful toxin. They’re causing problems in the Gulf of Maine. Alexandrium, you don't have to have a lot. Actually really low numbers of Alexandrium can be present and produce really detrimental effect on humanity that feeds on this shellfish.

So the changes of the color of the ocean due to the presence of this phytoplankton are just so miniature, no? We cannot see it with our eyes, but if we have sensitive instruments, such as the Ocean Color Instrument on PACE, we're going to be able to differentiate not only because it's sensitive to the intensity, but it's also sensitive to the colors. Having this hyperspectral view with really high sensitivity is going to allow me to differentiate much, much more of the phytoplankton, because each of them--or at least each group--has its own optical patterns. It's an optical fingerprint.

We're hoping that PACE, due to its capabilities, is going to be able to really focus on specific species of interest, such as the harmful algal bloom species or species that are very beneficial

for the growth of certain organisms. So the speciation is a function of the technical abilities that PACE has, but it's also it's a function of our capabilities to understand the local ecosystem.