When conditions of light and nutrients align in the surface waters of the ocean, tiny single-celled algae called phytoplankton respond with explosive growth and reproduction in a phenomenon known as a phytoplankton bloom.
“As scientists looking in the microscope, we have an excitement about these organisms and their power to shape the world that we want to share, but we can’t always do it in the most compelling or meaningful way,” said Elizabeth Halliday, who recently earned her Ph.D. in biology in the MIT/ WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography.
Halliday and graduate student Sophie Clayton partnered with artist Janine Wong in a project called Synergy, in which scientists collaborated with artists to create science-inspired works of art that could also spark interest in science in others. (Eight works of art from the project are on display at the Boston Museum of Science through June 3, 2013.)
“Janine was really interested in having different ‘languages’ tell the story of the bloom,” Halliday said. The first language was etched prints, using real microscopic images taken by Halliday’s Ph.D. advisor, Rebecca Gast, while conducting research aboard the research vessel/ice breaker Nathaniel B. Palmer in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. The second was something between images and texts—diagrams, thoughts, and equations from Clayton’s laboratory notebooks. The third was traditional text to tell the story, to be contributed by Halliday.
“I was excited to help out and came back with a five-page essay describing what happens during a bloom and why it is important to the health of the ocean and people everywhere,” Halliday said. “Janine read through it and underlined a few phrases that she liked. When we met, she pointed out there really wasn’t room for this much writing in the book, and who would saunter up and really read it at an art gallery anyway? She said she saw a poem hiding in it.
“Although I like to write, I hadn’t written a poem since elementary school and was haunted by my dreadful rhyming. But I thought I’d give it a try, because I loved the idea of the lyrical words complementing the images and equations. It was a big step outside my comfort zone, and as a scientist I was constantly fighting with the amount of information I wanted to include versus what details really would be meaningful or inspirational to a reader who had never heard of this before. Feedback along the way really helped, and I’m happy with how it turned out and melded into the final project.”
Planktos, meaning ‘wanderer’ or ‘drifter,’ gives name to billions of cells
moving at the mercy of great currents. Tossed and turned in the ocean,
phytoplankton pump the lungs of the earth
sponging up raw solar energy and carbon dioxide to produce
half the oxygen in our every breath, and the very scent of the sea.
The phytoplankton are not alone in their wanderings.
Within a single teaspoon of seawater, bear witness to the battle:
fifty million viruses, attacking
five million bacteria, reacting, and interacting
with fifty thousand phytoplankton, bent on survival.
As daylight contracts, winter’s cold waters are roiled by storms
superimposed on the typical turbulence of eddies and gyres.
The phytoplankton rest.
Awaiting the sun, they anticipate a new season
in waters redolent with potential for growth.
Waters are renourished from winter mixing, and now warmed by the sun.
Diatoms – a kind of phytoplankton, named from the Greek diatomos, ‘to cut in half’—
respond to the windfall of light and nutrients.
Each diatom inhabits a skeletal house of beautifully sculpted of silica, structures of hydrated glass
honeycombed with pores, each pore a portal between cell and sea.
Thousands of diatom species are identifiable based on their glass house, uniquely designed
but always consisting of a top and a slightly smaller bottom, snuggly fit together like a lidded cookie tin.
A single cell growing, thriving, has no choice
but to split the house apart when it divides, birthing two identical daughters.
Their inheritance: half of a glass house and a genetic dictum to rebuild, to replicate.
Dividing once per day, twice per day, sister cells link like daisy chains
endowed with extravagant spines, stretching their surface area to slow inevitable sinking.
Waters grow turbid as the micro becomes macro
and the bloom, seen from space as swirls of green across hundreds of miles of
blue ocean, produces oxygen equivalent to that produced by the rainforests of the world.
The biological building blocks of carbon and nutrients, on land, are locked in mighty trunks and roots
But in the sea, the same goods carried by phytoplankton are rapidly consumed, recycled.
Perhaps first in line is a predatory amoeba, nestled in a geodesic skeleton
and cloaked in a mass of dark, undigested leftovers from the ever-changing oceanic buffet
of bacteria and phytoplankton, each cell invited to the inner sanctum for digestion.
The bloom is haphazardly munched on by the miniscule, it is engulfed by whales
it is presented to you as the Catch Of The Day.
The bloom is beneficent.
Even cells escaping consumption, those buried at sea, are composed of carbon
that was appropriated from our overburdened atmosphere, and now rests sequestered.
With bloom comes bust. Necessary nutrients become scarce, reproduction unmanageable.
Cells flock and fall like snow, into the twilight zone, then the abyss,
decomposed along the way by bacteria
feeding an oceanic composting system that turns life back into building blocks, the raw riches
that eventually will rise again, conveyed by currents to fuel blooms of future centuries.