Zooplankton excretion and algal alkaline phosphatase are presumed to be responsible for phosphorus recycling in aquatic ecosystems; the role of bacteria has been unclear. High levels of bacterial cell-surface 5-nucleotidase were discovered in samples of picoplankton from California coastal waters. 5-Nucleotidase rapidly generated orthophosphate from 5-nucleotide added in nanomolar amounts and could supply half the orthophosphate required by plankton. Unlike alkaline phosphatase, 5-nucleotidase was not inhibited by orthophosphate at any concentration found in aquatic environments. Initial results indicate even greater 5-nucleotidase activity in fresh water (Lake Hodges, California) and brackish water (Baltic). Release and uptake of orthophosphate were tightly coupled.