In the series, "Worth Pitching?" I'll describe research I've come across in the course of science journalism and whether or not I pitched it to editors as a story. All research may be worthwhile, but what might the general public want to read about?
So here's a tidbit that caught my eye the other day — "Fossil amoebae (Hemiarcherellidae fam. nov.) from Albian (Cretaceous) amber of France." Ancient, protean microbes, discovered frozen in time — tantalizing.
Fossils are typically worth a look. Amoebae as well. I've never heard of fossil amoebae, so there's novelty there that might be worth investigating — the operative word in "news," after all, is "new." Trapped in amber, these delicate microbes appear extraordinarily well-preserved, so there's potentially an attractive visual.
The amoebae in question are testate — that is, they generate tests, or shells. So they're not blobs, as one might normally think of amoebae, but rather had a rod-like, translucent shell from which projected a ring of about a dozen spike-like filopodia that likely acted much like whiskers. These shells were about 55 microns long — about half the width of a human hair — and 17 microns wide.
The researchers propose this is a new family of amoeba — they call it Hemiarcherellidae, 'Hemi' for 'half' and 'Archerella' for the name of the closest genus of amoebae resembling it physically. The one they describe here is Hemiarcherella christellae, whose species epithet Christellae is derived from the researcher's ex-wife Christelle. (I hesitate to ask what's going on there.)
The researchers suggest H. christellae lurked in the soil, sneaking around crevices hunting bacteria. In turn, it may have been preyed on by mites, juvenile spiders or springtails — what to it would have been giant bug-eyed monsters.
So is this research worth pitching? Keep in mind that what each science reporter likes to write about can be idiosyncratic, so my choices might not be the choices another science reporter or you would make. Also, it bears saying — whether I pitch a story or not isn't a judgment on whether I think the research is worthwhile, since my hope is that all research moves human knowledge forward. I'm focused on whether whatever audience I write for might be interested in reading about it.
Well, to start with, this discovery represents the third species of fossil testate amoebae discovered from amber. So it's not a new discovery, per se.
Most science is incremental, and valuably so. Like a coral reef, a great deal of science's beauty lies in steady accumulation. Many readers, even scientists, are often attracted to the flash of novelty, but a lot of the real work is with pieces of the puzzle that help shed light on the big picture such as this one.
How does this research change what we knew before about the world? It adds to the fossil record of amoebae, and so helps yield insights on their evolution. Did they change over time? Or have they remained largely static?
Unfortunately, for the audiences I typically write for, morsels of natural history such as this aren't what I think grab their attention. I could be wrong, though, and gladly welcome others to pitch this research. In any case, the value of blogs such as this one is that I can highlight whatever I please, especially work that might otherwise go overlooked.
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