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The Artful Amoeba

The Artful Amoeba

A Blog About the Weird Wonderfulness of Life on Earth

The Odd Allure of Rock Snot

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UPDATE: After being accidentally closed all launch day, comments are now open! Please feel free to introduce yourself, suggest an organism or topic for a post, or say hi below. I would love to meet you.

In early November 2005, about a year after I joined the staff of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle as a cub reporter, I clipped an Associated Press article from our paper titled "Algae threatens western waters". Something charmingly called "rock snot" was encroaching on the streams of the west, carpeting them with a choking growth with the appearance of, as I would later put it, pre-owned toilet paper.

Creative Commons Thorney¿? Click image for license/original.

This strange growth, which was slowly smothering the life in those streams, was suspected of being spread by fishermen and of killing the insects fish eat. But what really grabbed me was this: rock snot was a diatom.

A diatom! The glass art of the oceans -- a vast class of photosynthetic unicellular pillbox-shelled organisms with a lineup of cute species rivaling the cast of Pokemon and the reproductive issues induced by life -- quite literally -- in a glass house.

Creative Commons Wipeter. Click image for license/link.

But the article hinted at none of this -- nor at how something with such a fantastic reputation for microscopic beauty and self-sufficiency could appear so macroscopically large, hideous, and megalomaniacal. What did this stuff look like under a microscope? And what was life form so famous for plying the sea doing going Napoleonic on mountain streams? More on this at the end of this post.

I clipped that article because it had long been my dream to write a book about the incredible diversity of life on Earth. Not the concept of diversity, but the life itself. Most people reading that article, I knew, would have no idea what a diatom was, much less why it seemed, to me at least, an improbable culprit in a wholesale takeover of America's streams. And so I put that article in my book's hope chest: an olive green hanging file folder filled with newspaper clippings and torn-out magazine articles that kept company in a filing box with my credit card receipts and auto records.

I was saving those articles because I wanted to tell the world about the stories behind the stories. About the blizzard of amazing life I'd glimpsed when in school studying biology in the late 90's an early '00s, which, indeed, was when I'd conceived of writing the book. But who would buy a book from a completely unknown science writer working at a tiny paper in Wyoming? And when would I ever find the time? I had to eat.

A few years and a major science writing award later, the director of my graduate science writing program asked me, when I mentioned my book difficulties, if I'd ever thought of starting a blog. By then, I had a lower-stress day job that didn't leave me comatose on the futon when I got home. I had the means, I had the drive, and now I seemed to have a low-investment platform, so in 2009, I did. And two years later, here I am . . .

Welcome to The Artful Amoeba. My name is Jennifer Frazer and at this blog I'll be your guide to life on Earth. I'm a Colorado-based science writer with degrees in biology, plant pathology, and science writing. I spent three years out in Wyoming working as a health and environment reporter at a daily newspaper in the capital, Cheyenne. For the last three and a half years, I worked as a science writer at a science non-profit by day and, starting two years ago, a science blogger by night. Now I'm a freelance science writer and, of course, still a blogger.

A sampler of my work from the last year or so:

You can find me on Twitter at @JenniferFrazer or you can email me at frazer@nasw.org. I am lifting my comment policy from fellow Sci Am blogger Jennifer Ouellette, but in brief, the policy is: please be nice to each other (and me), please be coherent, and please don't spam. You can also see my portfolio and peruse the last two years of my posts at the old incarnation of this blog, theartfulamoeba.com, where I may occasionally post new things that for whatever reason are not a good fit here. The graphic artist who helped me execute my banner design from a public domain image and my wacky idea is Brannan McGill, owner of the aptly named Protist Design, which he assures me was its name long before he met me, and which I had no idea of when I employed him.

Our planet is coated in beautiful and bizarre life forms that one or two biologists -- or maybe none -- have studied. Their astounding forms, colors, and alternative lifestyles are mouldering in dusty journals in academic libraries, or in the far reaches of the internet. Or perhaps they have had some press coverage, but you didn't happen to read the papers that day, or you did, but the article just didn't have room to tell the whole story, much less show you a picture. Well, I will. As big a picture as the bevevolent Sci Am overlords will let me get away with.

Some examples:

The palm-tree female and nail-head male sex organs sprouting from the early-evolved liverwort plant Marchantia:

Creative Commons J.F Gaffard Jeffdelonge at fr.wikipedia Click image for license/link.

A day-glo orange bacterio-fungal-algo co-op called a lichen with its fungal cups blazing:

Creative Commons Keith Hall. Click image for license/link.

The chiton/scale-insect/flatworm-like bodies of sea-lily (crinoid) parasites called Myzostomids, themselves likely relatives of annelids like earthworms . . .

Public Domain, original by W. Blaxland Benham (after Lang and von Graf)

a disturbingly lavender jelly fungus . . .

Creative Commons Daryl Thompson. Click image for link/license

and, as Gonzo would say, a whatever (a still unknown member of the Ediacaran fauna, Fractofusus).

Photo by Dr. S. B. Misra; used with permission.

I see my job as telling these creature's stories (such as we know them) with wit, humor, images, and video that awaken your emotions as well as your mind. I also try to help you learn how everything is related, and what key features -- evolutionary innovations like cell walls, vertebrae, or seeds -- unite major taxonomic groups. Understanding how life is related helps you keep it all straight in your head and provides hooks from which to hang new groups and species as you learn them. It also helps you understand evolution's course and what biological innovations were key turning points in the story. And indeed, that story, also called "natural history", will get attention here too.

And as promised, here is what “rock snot”, Didymosphenia geminata, looks like under the scanning electron microscope:

Public Domain

As I put it when I finally wrote about this at my blog five years later, up close, “rock snot” has the lines of a Stradivarius and the detailing of a Faberge egg. Life is not always what it seems. Beauty and evolutionary innovation hide in destruction. They hide under logs and in scummy streams and stagnant puddles and in seawater and on tree bark and between grains of sand and right under your nose, if you only know what to look for. Please join me. I want to show you.

 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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