Our understanding of the role of marine phytoplankton in the global biogeochemical cycles of carbon and sulphur, particularly the rates and variability of primary production and calcification, phytoplankton activity and ecology in the subsurface chlorophyll maximum, and the use of satellite remote sensing to detect coccolithophore blooms, has progressed substantially through research initiated, led and undertaken by Patrick M. Holligan. The enthusiasm and commitment of Patrick’s colleagues for both this special issue and the symposium on “Marine Plankton: From Cells to Ecosystems” held in his honour in April 2008 at Plymouth, UK are testament to the high esteem in which he is held within the international scientific community. His expertise as a scientific leader, teacher and writer has inspired students and collaborators over more than three decades. In particular, his chairmanship during the early 1990s of the Planning Committee for the “Land-Ocean Interactions in the Coastal Zone” (LOICZ) project led to the establishment of a new core project within the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP). As the first Head of the School of Ocean and Earth Science (SOES), University of Southampton (1998–2002), Patrick had responsibility for substantial expansion of the School, including 13 new academic appointments. As one of the first UK Principal Investigators to propose an open-ocean latitudinal time-series study, he helped initiate the development of the Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT) programme (www.amt-uk.org), and as the President of the Council of the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS), he guided the transition to a new Directorship of the Continuous Plankton Recorder programme.