We describe an approach to modeling the ocean's inherent optical properties (IOPs) that permits extensive analyses of IOPs as the detailed composition of suspended particulate matter is varied in a controlled manner. Example simulations of the IOP model, which includes 18 planktonic components covering a size range from submicrometer viruses and heterotrophic bacteria to microplanktonic species of 30-mum cell diameter, are discussed. Input data to the model include the spectral optical cross sections on a per particle basis and the particle-number concentration for each individual component. This approach represents a significant departure from traditional IOP and bio-optical models in which the composition of seawater is described in terms of a few components only or chlorophyll concentration alone. The simulations illustrate how the separation and understanding of the effects of various types of particle present within a water body can be achieved. In an example simulation representing an oligotrophic water body with a chlorophyll a concentration of 0.18 mg m(-3), the planktonic microorganisms altogether are the dominant particulate component in the process of light absorption, but their relative contribution to light scattering is smaller than that of nonliving particles. A series of simulations of water bodies with the same chlorophyll a concentration but dominated by different phytoplankton species shows that composition of the planktonic community is an important source of optical variability in the ocean.