Tiny Plankton Not Just Whale Food, They Produce Half Of All the Oxygen We Breathe

By Kamal Nayan - 22 May '15 11:20AM

Tiny plankton in the ocean are not just whale food, but they are also responsible for producing half of all the oxygen living organisms breathe on the planet.

Researchers studied plankton for three and half years and collected 35,000 samples from 210 sites after traveling 87,000 miles around the world. Researchers concluded that their role in the biodiversity is much broader than previously thought.

Plankton include microscopic animals (zooplankton) and plants (phytoplankton), viruses, bacteria, fish larvae and other microorganisms drifting in oceans.

"We established a means to study viral populations within more complex communities and found that surface ocean viruses were passively transported on currents and that population abundances were structured by local environmental conditions," Matthew Sullivan, a University of Arizona associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and co-author on the series of studies, said in a press release.

These findings come for the a three-year mission also knows as the Tara Oceans Expeditions.

"The Tara Oceans expedition provided a platform for systematically sampling ocean biota from viruses to fish larvae, and in a comprehensive environmental context," Sullivan said. "Until now, a global picture of ocean viral community patterns and ecological drivers was something we could only dream of achieving."

The availability of plankton is affected largely by temperature. According to experts, the temperature appears to be the most important of environmental factors that determine how plankton communities gather. This suggests that although it can keep a check on the ecosystem, these can be easily affected by what's going around.

"This is an incredible new way of doing science," Sullivan said. "At Tara Oceans, we are united by a common goal rather than a common funding source. These first papers show the world that we're capable of doing science at this scale, and yet they represent just the tip of the iceberg of what is hidden in these vast data sets. We've got years of work ahead of us."

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