It just got easier to pinpoint biological hot spots in the world’s oceans where some inhabitants are smaller than, well, a pinpoint. Microscopic algae are called phytoplankton and range from one to hundreds of microns in size – the smallest being 1/100th the size of a human hair. But as tiny as they may be, communities of the phytoplankton south of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, are big players when it comes to carbon: They take up 50 percent of the carbon dioxide going from the atmosphere into the oceans there.

“We thought that had to be a mistake at first,” says Francois Ribalet, a UW post-doctoral researcher in oceanography and lead author of a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper on the discovery published online in September.

“They are such small cells to do so much,” he says.

Phytoplankton, like plants on land, take up carbon from carbon dioxide during photosynthesis to build cells. Phytoplankton anchor the oceanic food web so where one finds a lot of phytoplankton, one usually finds a healthy collection of fish and animals. If not eaten, phytoplankton die and sink, carrying their carbon with them. Worldwide, ocean phytoplankton consume as much carbon dioxide as the Earth’s forests and land plants combined.