Every third breath we take has oxygen produced from phytoplankton photosynthesis.
If good things come in small packages then the microscopic world is a very exciting parcel indeed. We are surrounded by micro-organisms. Life started billions of years ago with microbes and there have been microscopic wars waged and pacts created ever since, driven by the need to adapt to a changing environment. There are microscopic organisms that support larger organisms like the beautiful relationship between algae and coral polyps and those that seek to exploit like the infection of algae by pathogens. All of this is for survival.
A short trip back in distant time is essential to understand the place of microbes in the earth system. In the primordial ocean of the young earth, billions of years ago, microscopic life began. During the Precambrian around 2.2-2.4 billion years ago microbial organisms called cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) instigated the greatest change in the earth’s atmosphere so far – biological production of oxygen by photosynthesis. This was catastrophic for anaerobic organisms (those that do not need oxygen for respiration) and altered the ancient ocean chemistry. This biological innovation transformed our planet and made it habitable. The new oxygen, produced as by-product of CO2 fixation from H2O released by cyanobacteria, was reacting with dissolved iron in the ancient oceans, precipitating into other compounds such as iron oxide. After dissolved iron was exhausted, the ocean and then the atmosphere started to become saturated in oxygen. The expansion of bacteria and multicellular aerobic organisms took place over the next billion years and 1.5 billion years ago the ancestors of modern land plants and oceanic phytoplankton started to emerge.
Phytoplankton, the tiny drifting plants of the ocean, are vitally important to the health of the oceans and the earth as a whole. Phytoplankton produce about half of the oxygen we breathe, and are as critical as the rainforests in removing carbon dioxide to keep the atmosphere balanced and safe for all inhabitants on the planet. Phytoplankton are the engine room of the marine food chain, supporting, and sometimes disrupting, a complex food web in lakes, seas and oceans. Although the enormity of phytoplankton blooms can be seen in satellite images, the individual organisms need microscopes to reveal their secrets.
We use microscopes to give us brilliant glimpses into the complex world of marine life. We can look at individual species and their intricate structures and examine the cell contents. We can observe interactions between species and the impact of algae and phytoplankton on other organisms and vice versa.
Our mission is to communicate the beauty of the marine microscopic world and its importance in the healthy function of the planet.
You can see a tree being felled and burned as forests are devastated around the world. It is much more difficult to see the direct impact of human activities on phytoplankton and other microorganisms. Both ecosystems are vital for human survival, we are only just beginning to realise how seriously human actions are affecting the bottom of the food chain.
Small is important, beautiful and powerful.