What are Phytoplankton?

By Rebecca Lindsey and Michon Scott Design by Robert Simmon July 13, 2010

A previous version of this article was published in 1999. An archived version is available as a PDF file.

Derived from the Greek words phyto (plant) and plankton (made to wander or drift), phytoplankton are microscopic organisms that live in watery environments, both salty and fresh.

Some phytoplankton are bacteria, some are protists, and most are single-celled plants. Among the common kinds are cyanobacteria, silica-encased diatoms, dinoflagellates, green algae, and chalk-coated coccolithophores.

Illustrations of types of phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are extremely diverse, varying from photosynthesizing bacteria (cyanobacteria), to plant-like diatoms, to armor-plated coccolithophores (drawings not to scale). (Collage adapted from drawings and micrographs by Sally Bensusen, NASA EOS Project Science Office.)

Like land plants, phytoplankton have chlorophyll to capture sunlight, and they use photosynthesis to turn it into chemical energy. They consume carbon dioxide, and release oxygen. All phytoplankton photosynthesize, but some get additional energy by consuming other organisms.

Phytoplankton growth depends on the availability of carbon dioxide, sunlight, and nutrients. Phytoplankton, like land plants, require nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, silicate, and calcium at various levels depending on the species. Some phytoplankton can fix nitrogen and can grow in areas where nitrate concentrations are low. They also require trace amounts of iron which limits phytoplankton growth in large areas of the ocean because iron concentrations are very low. Other factors influence phytoplankton growth rates, including water temperature and salinity, water depth, wind, and what kinds of predators are grazing on them.

Satellite image of the ocean off the coast of New Zealand on October 11, 2009.
Satellite image of a phytoplankton bloom off the coast of New Zealand on October 25, 2009.

Phytoplankton can grow explosively over a few days or weeks. This pair of satellite images shows a bloom that formed east of New Zealand between October 11 and October 25, 2009. (NASA images by Robert Simmon and Jesse Allen, based on MODIS data.)

When conditions are right, phytoplankton populations can grow explosively, a phenomenon known as a bloom. Blooms in the ocean may cover hundreds of square kilometers and are easily visible in satellite images. A bloom may last several weeks, but the life span of any individual phytoplankton is rarely more than a few days.

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