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Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 14: A Nantucket Sleigh Ride

1430 hours…

To our great delight, Lyra discovers a single greenish cell wedged firmly in the ship’s rudder assembly – the strange malfunction of our steering and elevator systems now demystified. When she attempts to free the organism with a length of hemp line the protist takes her on a merry jaunt as she grasps the tether with all her strength.

“There she goes!” reports Gyro as Lyra and the green beastie streak past the windows of the wheelhouse, looking for all the world like a micro-scaled reenactment of a nineteenth century Nantucket sleigh ride. “Let go, for heaven’s sake!” he shouts in vain at the drama beyond the glass. “Why doesn’t she just let go?”

“Because that simple and elegant solution,” I mutter, “would be far too convenient! I suspect that our young biologist has reckoned that the organism is worthy of closer study – and once she sets her mind to such a task…”

“All well and good,” raged the concerned and exasperated pilot, “but it’s carrying her farther and farther away!”

So as not to lose my prize naturalist, I know we will need a quick plan to lure the green cell back to the Cyclops, get it close enough for capture.

As if reading my mind, Gyro offers a timely recollection: “Skipper, remember the green paramecium, how it would move out of our shadow to bask in the sunlight.”

“By Jove, ensign,” I proclaim, “we will yet make a naturalist out of you!”

My mind was racing. Perhaps this energetic green organism is driven by the same chemical responses as the green paramecium.

I turn to the ship’s controls and power up the external lamps. Sure enough, as I had hoped, the organism changes its mad course and heads toward the light, towards the ship, and safety for Lyra!

1515 hours…

Lyra is now safely aboard the Cyclops again and our new mascot – the green algae cell – is being observed in a glass enclosure. It has the usual characteristics of a single cell: a roundish clear body filled with cytoplasm. This one has two flagella, which it uses like propellers for moving about. Each flagellum joins the body where we observe a cluster of red granules. We suspect this red “eye spot” is sensitive to the presence of light, and steers the cell by sending chemical signals to the flagella. Also inside the cell is a nucleus, a number of whitish starch bodies, and a horseshoe-shaped green structure – the organism’s chloroplast.

The chloroplast seems to be the center of a great deal of biochemical activity within this organism. When light is shined upon the chloroplast the oxygen levels in the tank begin to rise and starch bodies are produced. Lyra believes we are watching the process of photosynthesis as it occurs. She also suggests that a small menagerie of these organisms might serve us by producing all the oxygen we could ever need! It appears that a happy accident has provided us with a solution to our oxygen problem.

As we continue our mission I am in awe. We have observed that every green cell in this life-rich world is a living factory, producing oxygen and the molecules for life. It is here in the micro world, I humbly realize, that the foundations of the living world begin!

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 13: The Grass of the Serengeti

Day 9: 0530 hours…

Dawn is breaking. Last night we anchored the ship to a decaying aquatic weed stem, about two hundred twenty centimeters depth – all hands glad for the respite after our adventure on the surface. I am pleased to report that the night passed uneventfully.

As I enjoy my mug of coffee on the observation level of the pilothouse the faceted dome reveals the first sunrays piercing the pond’s depths. Through the heavy leaded glass warm watery light strikes green algal protista, which illuminate into iridescent emeralds.   And there are thousands upon thousands of them all around us, creating an ever-changing green waterscape that extends in all directions to the furthest distance. The harmless multitude is to other single-celled pond organisms what grass is to the herding beasts of the African Serengeti – food in abundance. I am admittedly curious about the organisms that rely on this plentitude.

“Good morning, Skipper,” says Gyro cheerily as he enters the pilothouse.

I return his bright salutation, adding, “How about we get the ol’ girl ready for departure?”

“Aye, skipper!” my steersman answers. He picks up the voice pipe: “All hands – prepare for departure! Make free fast all mooring lines and retract! “ He turns to me with eyebrows raised. “Speed and heading, Captain?”

The green algae cells cavorting hither and yon were a clue that we were in the midst of an active food chain. I was eager to unfold its secrets as the sun rose higher.

“Ahead one quarter,” I say. “Nice and slow. Two degrees left rudder, and elevators minus five.   Let’s try to learn what dines on these little green beasties.”

Gyro sends two bells on the engine telegraph to Barron back in the engine room. Through the deck I can feel the vibration of our steam turbine increasing, then a slight surge as the screw begins to spin, the almost-imperceptible shudder through metal and glass as the steam engine gains speed. Through the glass of the observation dome I can see our overnight anchorage sliding astern. We are underway.

0800 hours…

We are entering a transitional pond microhabitat, not yet definable as shallows, and yet not as fathomless as the open water.

Cruising at slow speed near the surface, the Cyclops encounters a large single-celled organism common throughout the pond – Paramecium. This particular species is different than the others we have seen, it’s color being the most obvious differentiating attribute – it is green!

A closer inspection reveals that the green coloring comes from smaller green bodies inside. And these smaller green bodies are organisms themselves – algae cells – not dissimilar from the free-swimming algae cells that are so plentiful in this region. The green cells inside do not appear to be the paramecium’s breakfast. We wonder what function they serve, or if their home inside Chez Paramecia is simply a safe place to live, out of harm’s way.  And if so, how might the paramecium benefit from this curious living arrangement?

 

0830 hours…

Now this is curious – when we pass over the green paramecium, the Cyclops’ shadow blocks the light from hitting the organism – and to our astonishment, the organism immediately moves back into the sunlight! Could the paramecium be moving back into the light for the benefit of its little green guests? We have observed that green microorganisms gather in sunny patches throughout the pond. Further observation is needed to learn the connection between green organisms and sunlight.

1215 hours…

As has been the case all morning, single-celled algal protista abound, now perhaps more than ever! Without warning Gyro sounds the bubbles above alert, and for good reason! Oxygen bubbles, found wherever there is a large algae population, are a particular nuisance. “Bubbles above! Bubbles above!” shouts the steersman.

In much the same way Cyclops was recently stranded on the surface of the pond, we could easily become ensnared by air bubble surface tension and find ourselves unable to escape. We must avoid these oxygen bubble rafts at all costs, but at the moment, as the bubble raft expands down from the surface, we are in peril of becoming trapped!

“Jonathan,” advises Lyra, “that bubble mass is expanding very quickly, and we are getting awfully close to it. We need to stop rising, or we’re going to get trapped.”

“Skipper,” calls Gyro from the wheel, “ I suggest we flood the surplus oxygen storage tanks. The added weight will trim us, and prevent us from rising into the bubble raft.”

I spin to the voice pipe, tapping it twice to alert all hands of an impending announcement. “Barron, flood the reserve O2 tanks. Repeat: flood the oxygen reserve tanks with water – now!”

I glance at the oxygen tank indicators while watching the looming bubble raft now less than a ship’s length above us. The gages show a full store of oxygen. Hurry, Barron! No sooner do I impatiently think of my engine master, than do we hear the sound of metal pipes creaking as water rushes into the holding tanks. Oxygen streams out the stern release ports. The O2 level indicators drop from ninety percent to less than ten. The floor sinks beneath my feet as Cyclops drops safely away from the treacherous bubble raft.

“That was close!” exclaims Lyra.

“Skipper, I’m afraid escaping that bubble trap cost us our oxygen reserves,” Barron grumbles, as he enters the wheelhouse. “Now our oxygen supply is dangerously low.”

“A hefty price to avoid an even heftier problem,” I respond. “And while it worked, I’d like to know why our control surfaces weren’t able to turn us away from that bubble raft.”

“Rudder isn’t responding to the helm either,” adds Gyro. “The elevator system and the rudder are connected to the same cable cluster. Something must be jammed in there. “

“I’ll go,” says Lyra, never one to shy away from extra vehicular adventures.”

“Then go below and suit up,” I tell her. “But no side trips!”

“Side trips?” she mutters just loudly enough for me to hear. “I really do not know what you’re talking about.”

Microscopic Monsters – The Age of Discovery, Chapter 11: Run!

Day 8: 1730 hours…

Seeing Barron Wolf’s hulking silhouette standing before us back on the upper level was a welcome sight. The big man wrapped his huge arms around Lyra and I simultaneously.

We eagerly exchanged tales: Lyra and I, the remarkable story of our trip down through the plant, of the amazing discovery of the already-harvested diatom oil, all that we would need, packaged and ready for us to transport. Barron regaled us with his thrilling account of the tidal wave, and that of the rush-climbing aquatic insect, which continued to cover the doorway.

“The wave probably disturbed that insect,” explained Lyra. “So it came looking for a new resting place.”

“And found one right in front of our door!” bellowed a frustrated Barron. “How are we supposed to get out of this stem?”

“I don’t think she will be here much longer,” mused Lyra confidently. “This is a nymph stage of Ceratopogonidae Leptoconops, known commonly as no-see-ums. I’m sure it will be moving on as soon it warms itself in the sunlight.”

“That thing is a no-see-um?” asked an incredulous Barron. “They used to drive me nuts when I was growing up in Minnesota. Darn things would get in my ears and nose whenever we went fishing. But those were too small to see.”

Barron’s recollection was a sobering reminder that the warming day would bring other aquatic insects to the surface, and they would be hungry. “Well let’s just hope Lyra is right, and this one will soon be moving along. In the mean time, let’s get that diatom oil moved up here!”

In the end, the process of hoisting the diatom oil canisters up the vallecular canal to the upper platform took three trips using Barron’s hemp rope elevator system. Lyra, Barron, and I worked quickly, buoyed by a warm afternoon light that filled the chamber with a reassuring glow.

We were transferring the final load from the lift when the door-blocking insect began respiring rapidly. Heat radiated from its body. Through its translucent abdominal wall, lit from behind by the sun, we could see an arterial network swelling with circulatory fluid. With a sudden rasping of its barbed legs, the insect was gone.

Our door to the outside was no longer blocked. Unfiltered light streamed in. Visible through that rectangular portal, Cyclops was resting on her keel across a short expanse of glassy impenetrable water – and what a joy it was to see her undamaged.

Lyra contemplated aloud what I was already thinking: “We need an easy way to get the oil over to the ship.”

“I’ve already worked out a solution for that,” declared Barron. “You see, while you were down inside that plant I was actually getting something done.”

From the chiseled–out hallway Barron revealed a plank-like sledge, evidently made from a cellulose lath he’d scavenged from the upper platform. “Now if we only had a microscopic mule team,” he added.

“Our own strong backs will have to suffice,” I said, and began fashioning a simple harness and towline. “Besides, the exercise will be good for us.” Neither Lyra nor Barron offered any response.

With ourselves as beasts-o-burden, we began dragging the oil across the solid plain from the rush to the ship. Glide runners fashioned from Barron’s ingenious use of two S-shaped micro fibers provided near frictionless contact between the sledge and the aquatic interface. Once set in motion, the loaded sledge slid easily, as if on ice.

As we approached Cyclops, Gyro ran out to greet us and assist with the labor. The young steersman was evidently eager to reunite with the crew. He gave his own colorful account of his exciting ride on the tidal wave. With his help we were soon alongside our sturdy ship, unloading the oil canisters from the sledge.

“The oil will serve perfectly as a surfactant,” explained Barron, “That is, it will break the surface tension between the water and the air, or in this case, the water and the ship.”

“I just have one question,” said Gyro. “To get the ship back beneath the surface do we apply the oil to the water around the ship, or do we pour it over the hull?”

“Neither,” Barron answered confidently. “To insure the best coverage and most effective use of the oil, we will atomize it – turn it into an aerosol.”

“Barron, do we have the equipment for that?” I asked, already guessing the answer.

“The main propeller will serve as a distributor. With the engine in reverse, the prop will throw the oil into a mist, effectively coating both the ship and the water beneath it with a fine coating. That’s all it will take. Cyclops will slip beneath the surface and we will back in business.”

From the glassy surface around us, pupae continued to surface and hungry adult insects emerged. I was relieved to hear that Barron had worked out a fast way to distribute the oil and that we would soon be underway.

Then there was chaos.

“Run!” shouted someone, although now I’m unable to recall who it was. A shadow passed over the sun, shading the stranded Cyclops and an area several millimeters around it. Looking back over my shoulder the sky had disappeared, replaced by the massive compound eyes, mandibles, and the slathering mouth of a monster.

It was our friend the no-see-um, and she was hungry.