Saturday, January 27, 2018

Surprise squiggles

Friends, science is a process. It is a journey with plenty of twists and turns, and sometimes, if you're lucky, science has squiggles.

I've told you that the trainees in my program have split into small groups to pursue research projects at McMurdo Station. My group played around with scallop byssal threads and then settled on pteropods for our study organism. In the spirit of integrative biology, we have studied multiple aspects of the pteropods. We have observed them swimming and measured their metabolic rates. We have examined their responses to different temperatures. We have investigated the bacterial communities that live in their bodies.

Fluorescent squiggles on our microscope slide
You may not know this, but most animals host large and diverse communities of bacteria. These microbes aid in digestion, provide chemical cues, and live in harmony with their hosts. In fact, animals can be considered microbial ecosystems.

Our group used a fluorescent stain named DAPI to visualize the microbes that live on and in our pteropods. DAPI makes the bacterial cells glow blue when exposed to light, and the resulting pattern is a series of blue dots on a black background. When we put the slides on the microscope, we did see the dots as expected, but we also saw squiggles.

Our best guess right now is that the squiggles are also bacteria. Cells come in different shapes, and spiral-shaped bacteria exist. The squiggles are probably spiral-shaped cells viewed in a 2D environment.

What's cool about the squiggles is two-fold: first, they were an unexpected shape of cell to find, and second, they were only present in samples from the pteropods. Our group has sampled microbes from amphipods, and other groups have gotten bacteria from other organisms as well. None of the samples have had the squiggles, but all of the pteropod samples have had squiggles. The spiral-shaped bacteria seem to be exclusively associated with pteropods.

The spirals were an exciting and unexpected discovery. A pteropod-bacterial relationship might be an exciting topic to pursue in future research projects!


  1. Great work, attracted to your efforts by Woods Hole article on your fouling work. Interested in showing you what I am up to, check for base background Tim Birthisel

  2. Hi Tim, thank you for your interest in my work! It looks like you have a very interesting business at Terra Sub Aqua! Kirstin