Phytoplankton /ˌfaɪtoʊˈplæŋktən/ are the autotrophic (self-feeding) components of the plankton community and a key part of oceans, seas and freshwater basin ecosystems. The name comes from the Greek words φυτόν (phyton), meaning “plant“, and πλαγκτός (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, some varieties may be noticeable as colored patches on the water surface due to the presence of chlorophyll within their cells and accessory pigments (such as phycobiliproteins or xanthophylls) in some species.
Phytoplankton serve as the base of the aquatic food web, providing an essential ecological function for all aquatic life. Under future conditions of anthropogenic warming and ocean acidification, changes in phytoplankton mortality may be significant.[further explanation needed] One of the many food chains in the ocean – remarkable due to the small number of links – is that of phytoplankton sustaining krill (a crustacean similar to a tiny shrimp), which in turn sustain baleen whales.
The term phytoplankton encompasses all photoautotrophic microorganisms in aquatic food webs. 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 known species of marine phytoplankton. How such diversity evolved despite scarce resources (restricting niche differentiation) is unclear.
In terms of numbers, the most important groups of phytoplankton include the diatoms, cyanobacteria and dinoflagellates, although many other groups of algaeare represented. One group, the coccolithophorids, is responsible (in part) for the release of significant amounts of dimethyl sulfide (DMS) into the atmosphere. DMS is oxidized to form sulfate which, in areas where ambient aerosol particle concentrations are low, can contribute to the population of cloud condensation nuclei, mostly leading to increased cloud cover and cloud albedo according to the so-called CLAW Hypothesis. Different types of phytoplankton support different trophic levels within varying ecosystems. In oligotrophic oceanic regions such as the Sargasso Sea or the South Pacific Gyre, phytoplankton is dominated by the small sized cells, called picoplankton and nanoplankton (also referred to as picoflagellates and nanoflagellates), mostly composed of cyanobacteria (Prochlorococcus, Synechococcus) and picoeucaryotes such as Micromonas. Within more productive ecosystems, dominated by upwelling or high terrestrial inputs, larger dinoflagellates are the more dominant phytoplankton and reflect a larger portion of the biomass.
(From Wikipedia, June 9)