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Phytoplankton flunk photosynthesis efficiency test

Ocean’s food source converts more sunlight into heat than cellular fuel

By
2:00pm, January 7, 2016
phytoplankton

RED LIGHT  Researchers used the red light emitted by phytoplankton to track how efficient the organisms are at photosynthesis. 

Phytoplankton that harvest sunlight in the world’s oceans make more heat than food, a new study finds.

The microscopic marine organisms, which serve as an important food source in the ocean, use photosynthesis to turn sunlight into cellular fuel. But nearly twice as much of the sunlight energy captured by phytoplankton in the ocean is released as heat than is used to make food, researchers report January 7 in Science. The finding suggests that phytoplankton don’t photosynthesize as efficiently as researchers had thought.

“The photosynthetic efficiency of global phytoplankton is very low, surprisingly low,” says study coauthor Paul Falkowski, an oceanographic biophysicist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. “It was a complete shock to us.”

When phytoplankton harness sunlight, one by-product is fluorescence. Satellites tuned to detecting

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