A large scale study on plankton provided scientists with answers to many of the dilemmas they had over the microorganisms drifting in oceans. For instance, plankton is a lot more diverse than previously thought. More interesting, the microorganisms are responsible for producing about half of the oxygen available on the planet.
The expedition was an enormous effort from the Tara Oceans Consortium researchers, as they collected more 35,000 plankton samples from around 210 sites on the globe. They travelled over 87,000 miles during their three-year long quest, covering pretty much the entire planet.
Plankton is a very diverse environment, at until now scientists believed its main purpose is to provide food to many marine species. However, given that plankton encompasses very different tiny organisms, researchers know now than each of them has a different role.
First of all, there has to be made a distinction between zooplankton – microscopic animals – and phytoplankton – the plants. There are also various viruses, bacteria and fish larvae that live in the environment, but the most surprising discovery made involves the plants.
As with most plants, phytoplankton thrives in the spring, when they receive the much needed light and nutrients that helps them bloom. And exactly like their counterparts on land, the microscopic sea plants consume carbon dioxide during the photosynthesis, returning oxygen in exchange.
Plankton is spread evenly all across the planet, which means that it provides Earthlings everywhere with a much needed supply of oxygen. According to the estimations, the microorganisms are responsible for about 50 percent of the annually oxygen production, making them essential in regulating the climate.
However, the researchers also found out that of all things, plankton is most sensitive too temperature. This means that if the planet keeps warming up, some of the microscopic plants might disappear, and the oxygen supply might diminish significantly.
But plankton is not all about photosynthesis. The researchers have been able to identify about 5,000 populations of viruses, most of which are new. In fact, only 39 of the discovered viruses were previously known. The team discovered more than 100,000 species living in plankton – ten times more than what they knew before.
Plankton is also a fascinating interactive environment, with different tiny life forms working together or consuming each other to ensure their survival. Researchers found numerous examples of symbiosis and previously hidden biological interactions that are difficult to tag under the current classification.
Dr. Chris Bowler, one of the authors of the study working with the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), said that hard work is only beginning. Only 2 percent of the collected samples have been analyzed so far, and more spectacular results are expected to be published soon.
Image Source: Yibada