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The Ocelloid

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Greetings from Halifax, a world centre of protistology!

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

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I finally made the move I was supposed to do months (if not years) ago! Through a strange twist of evolutionary contingency (the same kind through which our kind came about in the first place), Dalhousie University in Halifax has become host to one of the worst infestations of protistologists in the world. For now, we hope to continue avoiding the immune responses (funding cuts), while we gather forces to attack the immune system itself and rule Canadian science Don’t mind us. It’s not like there’ll be much left of Canadian science to rule in the first place… (Having ignored Canadian news for the past couple of years on account of it being too bloody depressing, I am now being hit by all of it at once. No, the current Conservative government is not being nice to science, or nice to anything good in the first place, for that matter. There may be more ranting on the topic later… it’s getting a little scary.)

Anyway, while I try to adjust to the ocean being on the wrong side, there’s some catching up to do here. In the fall, I spent four months at Friday Harbor Labs, an incredible marine biology station off the coast of Washington (on San Juan Island). There’s a fair amount of reporting to do from that, especially as my productivity was severely incapacitated by the endless distractions in the form of one of the most biodiverse seas in the world, as far as invertebrates go anyway. And all those shiny inverts are full of even shinier microbes — I’ll have more on that later! I also had about 8 species of nudibranchs (sea slugs) in my sea table (basically a fish tank with circulating seawater straight from the ocean — meaning you don’t need to know anything about maintaining aquaria — the stuff keeps itself!), and a ton of other stuff that had fuck-all to do with my actual research. In other words, it still escapes me how anyone gets actual work done at field stations. But they do, and the work that comes out of there is incredible. Have you interacted with fluorescently-labelled proteins lately, particularly those tagged with GFP? Thank the jellyfish at Friday Harbor, and the researchers who painstakingly collected thousands of them to study the protein. A whole crapton of physiological work was done there too, on organisms who had more to offer than your standard lab mice and worms. For example, see the Acorn Barnacle, with the largest muscle cells known. Pretty badass. And also distracting. Even still distracting, as I write this post!

It’s not quite sampling season here yet (there was sea ice floating around last week, and it’s currently snowing outside), so I’ll append random images from Indiana and Friday Harbor. I’ve still got a pile of unprocessed images, some of them even potentially marginally interesting. Some of these may reappear later, as there are stories to tell. But for now, just enjoy the sights!

Spirogyra, a filament-forming green alga with a characteristic helical chloroplast (and a nucleus visible in the centre). Freshwater, Indiana.

A decaying cyanobacterial filament gradually falling apart into its constituent cells. Freshwater, probably Indiana.

Nematocysts! These ones are from a hydra, freshwater relatives of jellyfish and the like. These cells basically feature coiled up harpoons inside, and are poised to sting at any moment. One peculiar issue with nematocysts is that some of them appear to paralyse protists… if anyone knows anything about that, or the mechanism of action of those nematocysts, please let me know! In one instance, it seemed like the paralysis was reversible too, but I really don’t have any solid data on that.

Apusomonas, an adorable freshwater and soil flagellate who thinks it’s a turtle, sticking its spastic rubbery snout where it doesn’t belong.

Another glimpse of Apusomonas. They’re so cute! There’s also a bacterium being nibbled at (or at least tasted) right next to where the flagella emerge.

A ciliate covered in symbiotic bacteria living on its surface. This one comes from a marine low-oxygen mud (stinky-stinky) near Friday Harbor. Protists in extreme environments, like those with low oxygen content, quite often carry some bacterial pets, presumably to help them survive the strange worlds. Or perhaps those pets are parasites, using the eukaryote for something tasty. Or both. In any case, more and more of such intimate relationships are being discovered between protists and bacteria (as well as archaea), so keep an eye out for undocumented bacterial residents within eukaryotic cells! (Mitochondria and plastids are documented bacterial residents, don’t worry about those)

A marine foraminiferan, probably Myxotheca sp.. Found in Friday Harbor. People have told me that forams are more of a tropical bug, but if you look closely, there’s a ton of them in temperate seas as well! Any sponge or algal congregation I looked at was speckled with forams, so perhaps it’s true that their temperate diversity has little on the tropical counterparts, they’re still there and abundant! Freshwater forams are far less common, but can still be found. I do need to show y’all a giant naked one sometime. This specimen is a little squished, so you can see its nucleus just outside the opening, to the right.

A cluster of Vorticella, a stalked ciliate, from a freshwater pond in Indiana. They live as a field of flowers, except ones that nearly instantaneously contract at the sight of a predator. Imagine having to mow grass that contracts… and that’s probably why people don’t grow lawns of Vorticella. The only reason.

These should do for now. I shouldn’t spend all my microscopy in one place — what if I run out? ;-) Worry not — I not only have a microscope tuned for protistology on hand, but even a group of fellow deranged enthusiasts — I am incredibly lucky and grateful to have finally joined the Great Protistologist Infestation of Halifax!

Psi Wavefunction About the Author: Psi Wavefunction is a graduate student working with protists (the 'other' eukaryotes) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and now blogs about protists and evolution at Skeptic Wonder. Follow on Twitter @Ocelloid.

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

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