Breathe Deep and Remember to Thank Phytoplankton!

Think back to your earliest science classes in school. One of the first things we learn about our environment is that plants are responsible for the air we breathe—they’re the sustaining element of human life! Through photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide and output oxygen. We can thank plants every time we breathe deep and enjoy our lungs full of air.

What you might not realize, however, is that the majority of the plants responsible for producing oxygen aren’t the ones in your front yard. Sure, trees and ground-level shrubs engage in photosynthesis and produce oxygen, but the chief producers of the air we breathe are actually located in the ocean, below the depths!

What are phytoplankton?

Phytoplankton are photosynthetic plants living in the ocean—like green algae, for example. They’re actually responsible for Earth as we know it today. Before fish were able to climb up on land and evolve, phytoplankton in the primordial seas had to produce enough oxygen to saturate our atmosphere! So really, phytoplankton have been supporters of life from the very beginning!

By themselves, phytoplankton are microscopic—but often, they’re huddled together to form larger sea masses. Green algae is a great example. If you go scuba diving, you can see it clinging to rocks or floating in a mass. Examine green algae under a microscope, however, and you’ll see that it’s made of millions of chained phytoplankton cyanobacteria.

Here’s why phytoplankton are important

More than just helping us become the land-dwelling creatures we are today, phytoplankton continue to support all life on Earth. In fact, these little oxygenators are responsible for about 20% of all the oxygen in our atmosphere today. But that’s not even the most important part.

Thinking back to early science class, you know that sunlight is the catalyst for photosynthesis. Plants need sunlight to power the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. What makes phytoplankton so interesting is that they need very little (if any) sunlight to undergo photosynthesis!

Consider that a majority of the Earth’s phytoplankton lives at ocean depths below the photic zone (650 feet)—the depth at which light can penetrate water. In fact, one of the most prolific types of phytoplankton (Corallinales) lives at depths of 850 feet! This tells scientists two things. First, phytoplankton are extremely efficient synthesizers, utilizing very little light to produce a lot of oxygen. Second, that light may not be necessary for some phytoplankton to produce oxygen!

The implications of this are huge for life on earth. For example, if we were able to harness the power of phytoplankton, we may be able to reverse some of the effects of global warming by restoring a portion of our ozone layer. Phytoplankton may be the key to more efficient oxygen production in space flight, too—even helping us to colonize future planets!

Phytoplankton hold the key to our oxygen supply

Read the headlines and you’ll see that deforestation is a problem in today’s world. The rainforests are burning, along with timberlines across the world. We’re losing trees at an alarming rate, which impacts the world’s total oxygen production capacity. Phytoplankton may be our saviors in this regard.

Phytoplankton thrive in the sea because there’s no threat of forest fires or land clearing. In fact, they live at depths where very little disturbance occurs. As a result, phytoplankton are only increasing in importance as our life support system. And while they’re thriving, it’s only a matter of time before our environmental impacts harm them and, in turn, our oxygen supply.

Things like rising ocean acidity levels, rising ocean temperatures and plastic pollution are all infringing upon phytoplankton. Worse, they’re infringing faster than these microscopic bacteria can adapt. Eventually, we’ll reach a point where phytoplankton begins to die off in mass extinction rates and with them, so will our primary means of global oxygen production. We need to act now to prevent this.

A movement to protect phytoplankton

We’re aware of the threat of deforestation. There are movements around the world to support the planting of trees and the stoppage of land clearing. But there are few movements specifically targeted towards the preservation of phytoplankton. We need a specific movement dedicated to protecting these essential life-givers.

We also need to combat ocean pollution and global warming—the two biggest threats to marine habitats where phytoplankton thrive. Banning single-use plastics, spearheading ocean cleanups, and reducing personal environmental impact should be the focus of every person who enjoys being able to take a breath of fresh air!

Just because we can’t see them every day doesn’t mean phytoplankton aren’t important. In fact, they’re the single most important contributors to our everyday quality of life. They supply us with the oxygen we need to breathe! The next time you take a deep breath, remember to thank phytoplankton—and use that breath to do something to help preserve them.

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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