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Where does your oxygen come from? Phytoplankton and plants

Where does your oxygen come from?

My friend “Phyto”

Phytoplankton is a big word for a tiny plant that could very well be our best friend. Even better than the family dog! Here’s why.

Fish, whales, dolphins, crabs, seabirds, and just about everything else that lives in or off of the oceans owe their existence to microalgae -- and phytoplankton is one group of these one-celled plants that live at the ocean surface.

Floating grasses of the sea: Phytoplankton

Phytoplankton form the base of oceanic biological productivity, the ability to support life such as plants, fish, and wildlife. Scientists are discovering that no other group of organisms seem to play such a major role in the maintenance of life on Earth.

Microalgae is a designation given to all algae that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. They include not only phytoplankton, but blue-green algae, diatoms, and so forth. The other group of algae found in oceans are the macroalgae, the kelps and fucoids that grow along the shore.

DIATOMS

Among the most abundant phytoplankton are 20,000 species of diatoms. They consist of a tiny blob of protoplasm in a transparent structure made of silica. This silica, the main ingredient of glass, is extracted from the seawater. Minute pores in their shells allow nutrient absorption and the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen with the surrounding seawater.

A single diatom can reproduce 100 million offspring in a month. As many as a billion diatoms can be found in a gallon of seawater. Those that are not eaten by whales or fish or other sea creatures die and their shells settle to the bottom of the ocean. In some areas of the sea, their skeletal remains form layers up to 700-feet thick.

The one-celled plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and nutrients into complex organic compounds, which form new plant material. This process, known as photosynthesis, is how phytoplankton grow. The principal "ingredient" that enables phytoplankton to use light energy is chlorophyll. This molecule captures photons from the sun and transfers them down a chain of electron-transfer components that assist in the manufacture of energy.

The food chain starts with phytoplankton, moves to marine creatures who eat the phytoplankton, and on to carnivores who eat the herbivores, and so on up the food chain to people who eat fish, seafood and even seaweed and kelp from the ocean.

Phytoplankton needs two things for photosyntheses – and thus, their survival and growth – energy from the sun and nutrients from the water. In the process of converting these growth resources into more cells, they release oxygen. Half the wold’s oxygen!

The other half of the world’s oxygen is produced by land trees, shrubs, grass and other plants.

Oxygen maintains a balance of about 20% of the mix of gasses in the atmosphere. Trees are most productive in the oxygen supply when they are actively converting carbon dioxide to oxygen to support new growth. Dying trees give off carbon dioxide as they decompose.

Photosynthesis is counterbalanced by an equal and opposite amount of respiration in nature. Respiration, the opposite of photosynthesis, produces carbon dioxide (when we breathe out) and consumes oxygen.

When people enter the equation and burn oil or coal, we increase the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide built up over millions of years as plants fell into the bottom of the ocean and lay there, gradually turning into crude oil, natural gas and coal.

These increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide are causing the Earth to warm. Phytoplankton is being studies as a solution to global warming. But there are complications. Some scientists feel that increasing the growth of phytoplankton may also cause the Earth to grow warmer as it absorbs more solar energy.

LEARN MORE:

Oceans On Line

Seagrant

Phytoplankton Game

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