Plankton are far more diverse and complex than scientists ever imagined. A group of researchers who spent over three years on a schooner studying microscopic ocean creatures finally published their report on Thursday in the prestigious Science journal. Plankton — the tiny plants, viruses, bacteria and microscopic Eukaryotes — were, until now, largely understudied.
Researchers studied 35,000 plankton samples
Under the Tara Oceans project, a team of international scientists traveled approximately 90,000 miles aboard the French schooner Tara between 2009 and 2013. They collected more than 35,000 samples of plankton, including bacteria, viruses, fish larvae, and single-cell algae from all major regions of the oceans. They discovered a world of diversity in plankton.
Most of them look something from a sci-fi movie with their sharp claws and translucent skin. Patrick Wincker, a co-author of the study, said that it was the largest DNA sequencing ever done for ocean science. Researchers identified about 40 million genes, most of them new to the science world. The team identified approximately 5,000 populations of viruses throughout the upper parts of the world’s oceans. Surprisingly, only 39 of these 5,000 viral populations resembled previously known viruses.
Why are plankton so important
Scientists not only studied the diversity of plankton, but also interactions between tiny life forms in oceans. Jeroen Raes of the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology said most of these interactions are parasitic in nature, recycling nutrients in the food chain. Scientists said that the study delivered “compelling evidence for extensive networks of previously hidden biological interactions in the sea.”
Why are plankton so important? They are the favorite food of whales, and they play an extremely important role in regulating the climate. Plankton produce almost 50% of the world’s oxygen generated by photosynthesis. They also absorb greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Plankton form the backbone of marine food chain.
Researchers also studied the impact of environmental factors such as pH, temperature, and nutrients on these tiny creatures.