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THERE’S AN ecosystem at least as significant as the Earth’s rainforests in its richness, diversity, sustenance and epochal importance to mankind. Because of the miniscule character of its constituents, though, it’s largely unrecognized. Plankton residing in the world’s oceans gave us petroleum and are basic to the marine food chain. They’re also the topic of a Special Section of Science magazine. Here are tidbits about what could well be called PlantktonWorld.
Plankton (singular: plankter) are a diverse group of organisms living in water. Their name derives from the Greek πλαγκτός, planktos, meaning errant or drifting. These creatures are generally incapable of traveling against the current, though some swim hundreds of feet vertically in a single day.
To study plankton, the Paris-based Tara Oceans Expeditions traveled from 2008 through 2013 on sampling missions at 210 sites around the world’s oceans. Logistics involved more than science. There were legal and political ramifications, unpredictable weather and menacing pirates. Onboard at one time or another were journalists, artists and teachers, school kids from the favelas of Rio de Janiero, and Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the UN.
The expeditions focused on sampling plankton from organism-rich sunlight portions of the oceans, to depths of 200 m, around 650 ft. The organisms ranged in size from 0.02 μm, (0.02 micrometers = 0.00000002 m = 0.0000008 in., tiny indeed) to those of a few millimeters (say, 1/10 in.) in diameter. To put this immense range in perspective, if the smallest were the size of a tennis ball, the largest would be around 1/2 mile in diameter.
Plankton can be split into seven size categories. Viruses and bacteria are among the smallest. Though making up only a modest proportion overall, zooplankton such as jellyfish are the largest.
The miniscule size of most plankton is overwhelmed by their abundance. Says Science, “More numerous than the stars in the universe, these organisms serve as the foundation of all marine food webs, recycling major elements and producing and consuming about half the organic matter generated on Earth each year.” Though we may joke about petroleum deriving from dinosaurs, its source is more correctly identified as prehistoric marine plankton. (Coal, by contrast, is from terrestrial matter.)
A crucial aspect of the Tara Ocean Expeditions and earlier efforts of its kind is that most small sea organisms cannot be grown in the laboratory. Among important outcomes of the expedition is the creation of an Ocean Microbial Reference Gene Catalog, a collection of more than 40 million nonredundant genes that are blueprints for metabolic function. As noted in Science, “Tara Oceans combined ecology, systems biology and oceanography to study plankton in their environment context…. Although many more such analyses will follow, life in the ocean is already a little less murky than it was before.”
PlanktonWorld is also magnificently photogenic in its rich diversity. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015