AskDefine | Define phytoplankton

Dictionary Definition

phytoplankton n : photosynthetic or plant constituent of plankton; mainly unicellular algae

User Contributed Dictionary



φυτόν (phytum) "plant" + πλαγκτόν (planctum) "wandering". However, they are no longer classified as plants, so the terminology is showing a historical meaning.


  1. Small algae and fungi. They obtain energy by photosynthesis, and live mostly in the upper part of the sea, because they need light to survive.


Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Phytoplankton are the autotrophic component of plankton. The name comes from the Greek terms, phyton or "plant" and πλαγκτος ("planktos"), meaning "wanderer" or "drifter". 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 due to varying levels of chlorophyll or the presence of accessory pigments such as phycobiliproteins, xanthophylls, etc.).


Phytoplankton obtain energy through a process called photosynthesis and must therefore live in the well-lit surface layer (termed the euphotic zone) of an ocean, sea, lake, or other body of water. Through photosynthesis, phytoplankton are responsible for much of the oxygen present in the Earth's atmosphere – half of the total amount produced by all plant life. Their cumulative energy fixation in carbon compounds (primary production) is the basis for the vast majority of oceanic and also many freshwater food webs (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.
Phytoplankton are also crucially dependent on minerals. 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 lack of the micronutrient iron. This has led to some scientists advocating iron fertilization as a means to counteract the accumulation of human-produced carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.
While almost all phytoplankton species are obligate photoautotrophs, 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.
The term phytoplankton encompasses all photoautotrophic microorganisms in aquatic food webs. Phytoplankton serve as the base of the aquatic food web, providing an essential ecological function for all aquatic life. However, unlike terrestrial communities, where most autotrophs are plants, phytoplankton are a diverse group, incorporating protistan eukaryotes and both eubacterial and archaebacterial prokaryotes. There are about 5,000 species of marine phytoplankton. There is uncertainty in how such diversity has evolved in an environment where competition for only a few resources would suggest limited potential for niche differentiation.
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 gyre, phytoplankton is dominated by the small sized cells, called picoplankton, mostly composed of cyanobacteria (Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus) and picoeucaryotes such as Micromonas.


External links

phytoplankton in Bulgarian: Фитопланктон
phytoplankton in Czech: Fytoplankton
phytoplankton in Danish: Planteplankton
phytoplankton in German: Phytoplankton
phytoplankton in Estonian: Fütoplankton
phytoplankton in Spanish: Fitoplancton
phytoplankton in French: Phytoplancton
phytoplankton in Scottish Gaelic: Luibhean-luaisgein
phytoplankton in Galician: Fitoplancto
phytoplankton in Croatian: Fitoplankton
phytoplankton in Indonesian: Fitoplankton
phytoplankton in Italian: Fitoplancton
phytoplankton in Hebrew: פיטופלנקטון
phytoplankton in Dutch: Fytoplankton
phytoplankton in Japanese: 植物プランクトン
phytoplankton in Norwegian Nynorsk: Planteplankton
phytoplankton in Polish: Fitoplankton
phytoplankton in Portuguese: Fitoplâncton
phytoplankton in Romanian: Fitoplancton
phytoplankton in Swedish: Fytoplankton
phytoplankton in Ukrainian: Фітопланктон
phytoplankton in Chinese: 浮游植物
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