The Ocean's Skin of Jelly

By Carl Zimmer | July 27, 2009 5:49 pm

My latest story for the New York Times has just gone online. It continues my string of stories in which I look at the familiar and find it deeply strange. The previous one was about fireflies. Tomorrow’s story is about the surface of the ocean. It turns out to be a deeply weird thing–a gelatinous biofilm inhabited by a peculiar menagerie of microbes that play a vital role in our own well-being.

Check it out.

Comments (5)

  1. And this is why you’re still my fave science writer. There’s room for earthworms in your writing… mundane, but as Darwin noted, profound.

    [Carl: Thanks! Of course, perhaps I should point out this praise was written by an expert on leeches....]

  2. Flying sardines

    Skin of jelly? What flavour? ;-)

  3. Hank Roberts

    Okay, this is wonderful.

    I think most of the funds for biofilm work have come from the oil industry, because of the elaborate structures that grow inside the pipes carrying raw oil from the wells.

    http://www.google.com/search?q=biofilm+montana+institute

    Nobody seems to have asked why the biota coming up with the oil have this inclination and what it might be that they’re so avidly trying to reconstruct on the only available surface, the inside of the pipes. They’re just studying ways to kill them off — pump the pipes full of chemicals, basically.

    So — biofilm. The ocean-air interface is one (we may well ask if this continues onto land and fresh water, since every surface we know of that’s left alone gets covered. Desert pediment?

    We know it’s what makes watersheds produce clean water — if left undisturbed.

    We know the odd gunk that comes out of the distilled water taps at any new research building, or any that’s been left alone for a while. Heck, it shows up at the doctor’s and dentists’ offices. It’s the bits thrown off by the organisms that can make a decent if slow living on the inside of the distilled water pipelines, picking the useful remaining bits out of the water produced by the distillation apparatus.

    And — the Biofilm Institute at Wyoming has wonderful information on this — we know biofilms are the stuff of next generation medicine, the stuff that lives on catheters, the stuff that falls out of the air vents in hospitals and goes into lungs.

    So — who’s studying this stuff?
    Certainly the best place to look, if we can look, would be undisturbed oil structures. Whatever the organisms are building in those environments, they’ve had plenty of time.

    Anyone figured out a way to take a MRI of an oil structure, without breaking it up first? Put in some long metal pipes at various places, and …. hmmmm ….

    http://www.biofilmsonline.com/
    http://www.erc.montana.edu/res-lib99-sw/newsarchives/Current_Newsletter.htm

    We know macroscopic organisms share resources — look at deep rooted trees in dry areas and the commensal organisms around their roots.

    Please, more. If you know someone who’s blogging on this, please give a pointer.

  4. Carl,

    Is there an RSS feed for your NYTimes columns?

    [Carl: Not that I know of...]

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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

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