It looks like a trashcan bobbing in the waters off the California coast. But it’s hardly garbage. In fact, it may play a key role in monitoring the health of our oceans.

The vital signs? The health of the seas’ smallest residents — phytoplankton.

From diatoms encased in glass to dinoflagellates that can cause toxic algae bloomsphytoplankton are a diverse group of algae that live in the ocean. They serve as the base of the ocean food chain and are responsible for cycling nutrients in the water and producing oxygen through photosynthesis.

“One out of every two breaths of oxygen that you take is coming from plants in the ocean, and most of the time people don’t think about them because they’re microscopic,” said Bethany Kolody, a graduate student researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

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