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Tiny Creatures, Part Plant and Part Animal, May Control the Fate of the Planet

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Tiny Creatures, Part Plant and Part Animal, May Control the Fate of the Planet

Mixotrophs, tiny sea creatures that hunt like animals but grow like plants can change everything from fish populations to rates of global warming.

Scientific American,

5 min read
3 take-aways
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Mixotrophs, plankton that eat like both plants and animals, are vital to marine ecosystems.

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  • Analytical
  • Innovative
  • Scientific


Mixotrophs combine two ways of getting energy. They photosynthesize energy from sunlight like plants, but they also eat prey like animals. Mixotrophic plankton were long considered to be anomalous, but they are the most prevalent plankton in the oceans. Plankton form the base of the marine food chain, so a deeper understanding of how they work is essential to understanding the whole ecosystem, from carbon sequestration to fish populations. This article will compel people who are interested in discoveries in marine biology that might have an impact on global carbon levels.


Many plankton are mixotrophs that use solar energy like plants yet must also hunt and kill prey.

Plankton are the base layer of the ocean’s food web. Marine biologists have traditionally divided them into two camps.Plant-like phytoplankton use solar energy and inorganic nutrients like nitrates to proliferate; animal-like zooplankton eat the phytoplankton.

Marine biologists had long considered plankton that combine these capabilities – mixotrophs – as rare curiosities with minimal ecological importance. But they have now found mixotrophs in all marine systems, from the coasts to the middle of the ocean and from both poles to the equator. And mixotrophs comprise the majority of the plankton in the sea.

There are four distinct types of mixotrophs, each combining plant- and animal-like methods for sustaining themselves in different ways.

Constitutive mixotrophs have their own internal, genetic capabilities for photosynthesis. The other three kinds...

About the Author

Aditee Mitra specializes in mixotroph and zooplankton research and is a plankton systems dynamics modeler. She is a senior lecturer in bioscience at Swansea University in Wales and a visiting professor at the Free University of Brussels.

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