We present a summary of biomass data for 11 plankton functional types (PFTs) plus phytoplankton pigment data, compiled as part of the MARine Ecosystem biomass DATa (MAREDAT) initiative. The goal of the MAREDAT initiative is to provide, in due course, global gridded data products with coverage of all planktic components of the global ocean ecosystem. This special issue is the first step towards achieving this. The PFTs presented here include picophytoplankton, diazotrophs, coccolithophores, Phaeocystis, diatoms, picoheterotrophs, microzooplankton, foraminifers, mesozooplankton, pteropods and macrozooplankton. All variables have been gridded onto a World Ocean Atlas (WOA) grid (1° × 1° × 33 vertical levels × monthly climatologies). The results show that abundance is much better constrained than their carbon content/elemental composition, and coastal seas and other high productivity regions have much better coverage than the much larger volumes where biomass is relatively low. The data show that (1) the global total heterotrophic biomass (2.0-4.6 Pg C) is at least as high as the total autotrophic biomass (0.5-2.4 Pg C excluding nanophytoplankton and autotrophic dinoflagellates); (2) the biomass of zooplankton calcifiers (0.03-0.67 Pg C) is substantially higher than that of coccolithophores (0.001-0.03 Pg C); (3) patchiness of biomass distribution increases with organism size; and (4) although zooplankton biomass measurements below 200 m are rare, the limited measurements available suggest that Bacteria and Archaea are not the only important heterotrophs in the deep sea. More data will be needed to characterise ocean ecosystem functioning and associated biogeochemistry in the Southern Hemisphere and below 200 m. Future efforts to understand marine ecosystem composition and functioning will be helped both by further archiving of historical data and future sampling at new locations. © 2013 Author(s).