Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 18: The Bottom Ooze

Day 14: 1100 hours…

Crisis!

I am loath to report that we are stranded, now mired to the gunwales in the bottom ooze – and I have only myself to blame.

The accident occurred in the middle of a strategizing meeting with naturalist Lyra Saunders and engine master Barron Wolfe. They were elucidating me on their well-reasoned plan to modify Cyclops’ fuel production by utilizing the product and by-product of photosynthesis (starches and oxygen) to fashion a fuel supply that would be emission-free, resulting in no carbon excess, making us undetectable to the predators of the pond micro verse.

As proposed, our menagerie of green algae cells, which has provided the bulwark of our oxygen production, could also be utilized as a starch farm. The starch would be processed to make a clean fuel for the boiler. Combustion would provide heat to drive the turbine, and the carbon gas waste product channeled back to the algae cells, which with the addition of sunlight, would continue the cycle. The idea was nearly perfect… the single stumbling block being that we had yet to discover how to easily convert the starch, which was itself combustible, to a higher energy-yielding fuel.

We were, in fact, discussing this very issue when there came a loud report, a metallic ‘BANG’ from aft.   The interruption hung for a moment in the cabin air as we looked at each other with a range of expressions, puzzled to concerned.

“Skipper, better get up here…” came Gyro’s stern declaration over the voice pipe.

Barron was bound for the engine room without a word. I raced for the wheelhouse, Lyra at my heels. In that moment I knew I had been remiss: following our run-in with the planarian, and more recently with the hydra – both of which were taxing to the ship’s constitution – I should have ordered a stem-to-stern inspection. But I neglected to do so, caught up in the excitement of new discoveries, and now some important piece of equipment had failed.

We charged into the pilothouse, found Gyro clutching the ship’s varnished oaken wheel with his left hand, his right pulling futilely on the elevator control lever.

“Control cable snapped,” he shouted in a matter-of-fact greeting. “She won’t pull up!”

Yes, I thought with alarm and self-recrimination, something that likely would have appeared plain as day in a cursory inspection… if only I had ordered one.

The following moments are a blur… of alarm bells… of desperation to regain control… of the pond bottom rising up from the shadowy depths as Cyclops plummeted deeper and deeper.

“Hang on!” shouted Lyra, but her warning was unnecessary. My knuckles, bone white, were locked around the safety railing in an iron grip. Around us, water roared past the observation panes with the sound of a hurricane. Ahead, the terminus of our steeply sloped path loomed with ever-increasing detail.

And then we met with the bottom. Iron howled, steel screamed, wood trembled. Cyclops’ downward motion was turned into forward motion in an instant, and momentum threw me over the railing and into a forward pylon separating two glass panels. I lay on the deck, looking up at the glass panes through which a dense cloud of bottom detritus was roiling around the ship – but to my surprise, no collision came then or ever.

The bottom, it turned out, was soft as goose down. Cyclops came to rest on a vast pillow of spongy ooze – the term given to the bottom micro habitat: a layer made up of dead plants and animals that rained down from the upper levels of the pond, home to the tireless decomposer organisms that constantly converted organic matter back into basic molecules for re-entry into the food chain.

As the cloudy water cleared from around the stranded ship, our immediate surroundings became perceptible in the murky light. The motionless silhouettes of hulking dead micro crustaceans littered the bottom-scape to the edge of visibility, like monstrous prehistoric invertebrates transformed into mountains. Periodically the body of a daphnia, or copepod, would drift down from above, land amongst the carcass-littered bottom with a small puff of cloudy detritus.

1330 hours…

“Jonathan, this is interesting,” says Lyra from where she tends the environmental sampling station in our laboratory. “The water down here is much lower in oxygen than near the surface. And the carbon dioxide levels much higher.”

“That is indeed curious,” I say in agreement. “I hope that we have an opportunity to discover what might account for such conditions.”

Lyra begrudgingly accepts my clumsy change-of-subject, and turns to greet Gyro and Barron.

The crew and I have gathered in the lower deck laboratory to assess our situation. We are in one piece, thankfully – more a tribute to Cyclops’ stalwart construction, than any clever action taken by her skipper. We have survived our ungraceful landing with only minor structural damage. To avoid another oversight like the one that now finds us stranded on the pond bottom, I have ordered ship-wide inspections of all mechanical systems.

Engine master Barron has already begun repairs on the damaged elevator control cable that put us here, and as he enters the lab reports that repairs will be complete in half a day. But a larger problem looms. A storage tank was ruptured in the crash and the last of our fuel oil is all but gone.

“And in summation, we have just enough fuel to spin the dynamo and keep the lights on,” explains Barron, adding, “for a little while.”

“And then what?!” inquires Gyro. “We won’t survive down here for long… there’s got to be a meter and a half of water between us and breathable air!”

“And not much sunlight getting through that water to energize our photosynthetic algae herd,” adds Lyra. “Which means oxygen will soon be in dwindling supply.”

“What about the starch bodies they’ve been producing all this time?” I ask. “What will it take to convert it to useable fuel?”

Barron grumbles. “There’s plenty of starch – the little critters keep cranking it out, but it will have to be desiccated. It’s going to be difficult to remove all the water without a dehydration chamber for focusing low steady heat and dry air. And I’m not sure we have enough fuel remaining to run such a thing…”

Lyra interjects: “Sorry, Barron, I don’t mean to interrupt… “ she looks around the lab, as if searching for something undefined. “But… well… does anyone else hear that?”

For a moment there is silence, then, as our hearing adjusts to the quietness, a rustling, brushing sound can be heard coming through the hull.

“Open the crash shutter,” I suggest, “and let’s have a peek.”

Barron inserts a handle into the shuttering mechanism and slowly cranks the shutters open.

The porthole reveals the source of the strange scraping and sliding sounds we are hearing: a microbe, about the size and shape of a large watermelon, is pressed against the glass. Beyond the cell, to the limits of sight, tens of thousands, no, millions, of other similar microbes litter the pond bottom. Some twist and writhe, moving by way of flagella or finger-like projections, others lie still in layer upon layer of identical microbes. The world of the pond bottom is a world swarming with a fantastic diversity of bacteria!

“Well that explains the CO2 levels! “ A glimmer comes to Lyra’s eye. “Jonathan, “ she begins, but I stop her.

“You most certainly are not going out there,” I announce firmly. The others cease their duties and direct their attention to us to see if Lyra is going to press me with one of her entertaining justifications for going out for a dip.

“Why in heaven’s name would I want to do that,” she chides. “Especially when it’s much easier to bring a bacterium on board for study!”

1410 hours…

With the use of a manipulator claw, capturing one of the plentiful cells was not difficult.

The cell’s shape is oblong, and has a lazily whipping flagellum at each end. It is now bathing in our examination tray, a large raised rectangular tub about the size of a large dining table. The bath is filled with pond water and the bacterium is idling near one end, its flagella occasionally disturbing the surface with a gentle rippling sound.

Initial observations: The cell appears much simpler than previously studied microorganisms, such as the ones we have been tending for oxygen production. Unlike the more complex single cells the bacterium has no nucleus, and very few internal organ-elles, just a few fuzzy bundles inside a gelatin-like cloud.

“But make no mistake,” cautions Lyra, “there is a lot of chemistry going on in there.”

Another difference from other single cells is the presence of a semi rigid wall surrounding the bacterium’s cell membrane: a cell wall, which we theorize serves as a protective shield from harsh environmental conditions.

“Such protection might allow bacteria to thrive in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth,” I conclude.

“Jonathan, look!” cries Lyra. “The examination tray is dissolving!”

To our astonishment the bacterium appears to have a destructive effect on our examination pool!

“Curious… what is the tray made of?” I ask.

Lyra considers for a moment, then: “Plant cell walls, easy to come by and perfect for this application, or so I thought.”

“We need a closer look,” I say as I swing a magnifying view lens over the affected area of the try.

“Would you look at that,” whispers Lyra, peering down through the lens. “Large molecules appear to be leaving the bacterium through those pores in the cell wall. Digestive enzymes, I should think. And look! The enzymes have a caustic effect on the tray, breaking it down into smaller subunits – which are absorbed by the cell.   Those digestive enzymes react with dead plants and animals everywhere down here, reducing them into molecules that the bacterium can use to build more enzymes and other molecules of life.”

A harsh scent suddenly stings my nostrils. “Do you smell that?”

Lyra sniffs at the cabin air. “Jonathan… I’ll bet my grandmother’s mule that that’s alcohol!”

1500 hours…

Using a low flame of diatom oil, a coil of copper tubing, and a beaker filled with sample water from around the bacterium, Lyra has fashioned an effective still. She is about to test the product, a clear fluid in a glass phial. She inserts a cotton wick into the phial and sets a burning match to the end. It flares brightly with a clean blue flame… the tell tale sign of alcohol.

Lyra looks up excitedly. “Well Jonathan, I do believe you are the luckiest skipper ever commissioned. Our fuel problem is solved!”

2300 Hours…

Working tirelessly into the night, Barron has been modifying the boiler to burn alcohol, which will allow steam to generate faster, while requiring substantially less fuel than before. Meanwhile, Lyra, with my assistance, has collected two-dozen of the fermentation bacteria, and has moved them into culture tanks where they will convert starch from our green algae cells into alcohol. We are expending the last of our now obsolete oil reserves to fuel lamps set around the algae pens, so that photosynthesis can kick-start the process. By morning we should have enough pure distillate to fire up the boiler, work up a head of steam, and resume our voyage.

At the approach of eight bells, I retire to my small, corner study and set about organizing the various logs and journals of the past few days. As I stow an etching of the captured bacterium and an accompanying diagram of the chemical process by which we now power the Cyclops, I reflect on how our new system, a renewable system, so perfectly echoes the cycles of matter and energy in the living world.

I have come to the inescapable conclusion that bacteria provide perhaps the most important role in life’s grand saga. They are the never-ending recyclers of nutrients – tireless, ubiquitous. These simplest of living things break down dead organisms, then become food themselves for larger single cells. And those become food for larger organisms yet.   Down here in the shadowy murk of the bottom ooze, we have discovered the beginning of a food chain.

As I gaze out my small porthole into blackness, lost in the elegance of Earth’s living cycle, a shape momentarily appears in that encircled frame – but my mind cannot comprehend it, its form or its very presence, until the shape, a moment later, vanishes from sight.

It was… though I can scarcely pen the words… a face.

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