Sunlight is the dominant control on phytoplankton biosynthetic activity, and darkness deprives them of their primary external energy source. Changes in the biochemical composition of phytoplankton communities over diel light cycles and attendant consequences for carbon and energy flux in environments remain poorly elucidated. Here we use lipidomic data from the North Pacific subtropical gyre to show that biosynthesis of energy-rich triacylglycerols (TAGs) by eukaryotic nanophytoplankton during the day and their subsequent consumption at night drives a large and previously uncharacterized daily carbon cycle. Diel oscillations in TAG concentration comprise 23?±?11% of primary production by eukaryotic nanophytoplankton representing a global flux of about 2.4 Pg C yr-1. Metatranscriptomic analyses of genes required for TAG biosynthesis indicate that haptophytes and dinoflagellates are active members in TAG production. Estimates suggest that these organisms could contain as much as 40% more calories at sunset than at sunrise due to TAG production.