continued from previous
“Good morning. Can I show you something?” Michael said to Olivia as she took a slow sip of her coffee. Almost as if she hadn’t heard him, she took her time putting down the cup on the benchtop, avoiding to look in his direction. Arms crossed, she got up and followed him to his station. Pausing as she looked up at him, she put up a “now what” face.
“I noticed that all of our new samples came with a tiny bit of white sediment at the bottom. So, I’ve managed to grab some of this stuff and put it under the high magnification lens. It turns out, it’s not dirt after all. Here, have a look.”
Michael made way for Olivia as she pulled a tall stool over from a few meters away and took a seat in front of the microscope. Gently pushing her hair back behind her ears with both hands, she carefully brought her eyes within millimetres of the microscope eyepiece. A few seconds elapsed that seemed like an eternity, as she navigated carefully back and forth on the specimen slide to look at the sample. The momentary silence in the room magnified the purring of the freezers, the electronic clicks of the PCR machines as they moved from cycle to cycle. Even the shuffling of the culture incubators two doors down the hallway could be heard, like a sped-up distant Buddhist chant. Michael patiently waited on the side, sitting still. For a second he looked like a mannequin that had been dressed in a lab coat and protective glasses. He was eager to hear Olivia’s verdict.
Olivia yelled in excitement, like a child that had just found a 20-dollar bill in the park. A smile could be seen as her eyes stayed fixed over the eyepiece, her eyeballs speedily pivoting back and forth in all directions as she explored the full field of vision. She wanted to be absolutely sure of what she was seeing. When she had finally had enough, she began to slowly move away from the microscope, almost like an astronaut going on a space walk away from the ship. She was still struck by what she had seen. Turning to Michael, she went on a monologue:
“They’re beautiful! And they’re alive! Weren’t these guys supposed to be going extinct? This is very interesting Michael. If these samples are even the slightest bit representative, then we’re talking about big numbers. It is possible that the whole phytoplankton disturbance may have been good for them, who knows, the whole ecosystem is in complete disarray at the moment so anything is possible. They may be part of the few lucky winners, especially if we’re talking about some kind of symbiotic relationship with the phytoplankton. The fact that they are even able to lay down their microscopic shells in an acidified ocean is in itself a major find”
“Could this be another mutation?” Michael said.
“Hell knows. Whatever it is, it is managing to grow. We actually know very few things about the genomes of these single-celled organisms. And they are almost impossible to grow in the lab. This is only the second time in my career I get to see them in this environment”.
By “in this environment”, Olivia meant the laboratory. A place where humans try to replicate, reproduce and recreate natural conditions in order to grow organisms. From vertical farms growing lettuce from Santorini to environmental control chambers tricking phytoplankton into thinking it is swimming in pure sunshine, to zoos confining penguins in jacuzzi-size pools with plastic icebergs as furniture, modern science spends much of its time trying to re-create the environments that humans have destroyed. Trying to fix our mistakes, as we continue making new ones. Trying to create new worlds, thinking that we are God. And each time, making things worse because we forgot, yet again, about the Whole.
The mutant foraminifera were another victory for the New Earth. Between the CO2 captured in their calcium carbonate shells, and the CO2 captured by the phytoplankton, Earth was beginning to fire up all of its carbon capture engines – even if this meant the beginning of a mass extinction event. Any outcome was far from certain.
George is an author, researcher, podcast host, chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , listen to his Spotify podcast George reads George, sign up for blog alerts below, or enjoy his books