Elephant seals weigh tons, are made of hundreds of trillions of individual cells, and are big enough to spot from the small plane as you come in for a landing on the smaller islands in the Falklands (Malvinas).
Standing on one of these beaches, most tourists, including most of the scientists at the recent pan-American Falkland Islands Science Symposium lead by the UK Science and Innovation Network, will stare at these behemoths, transfixed by their arresting presence. Not Ginny Edgcomb. She looks past the giant seals and stares at the dark brown pool in the peaty soil next to them. She gets out a small plastic vial and dips it into the water.
Later, under a microscope at the South Atlantic Environmental Research Institute (SAERI) lab, she explores the world of single-celled organisms, including highly active, animal-like protozoa. In any biology class you’ll get an introduction, but if you have any real impression of them, it likely comes from reading “The Far Side” comics. “Gary Larson has done more for protozoa being recognized than any of our textbooks,” she says.
Ginny works at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and has dedicated her life to studying the incredible life systems of the microscopic world—a world as rich with wildlife as anywhere on the African savanna. Lest you think that despite the diversity, the comparison isn’t fair because single-celled blobs have no real lives or interactions, she will joyfully educate you: “There are tons of interactions between the microorganisms in a community!”
For example, those creatures that can’t make their own food by photosynthesis often prefer certain prey based on its size or even its species. They’ll seek out this favored prey by following chemical trails, scurrying around like squirrels looking for nuts. Even the photosynthetic prey we might think of as superficially “plant-like” may search out light using light-sensitive “eye spots” and orient themselves with their whip-like flagella.
It’s not just “hunt or be hunted.” Some receive essential nutrients from the chemical environments created by others. This can be one-way or symbiotic, and can involve organisms living directly on top of each other, or simply in the same vicinity.
It is this intricate web of dependencies that explains to Edgcomb why less than one percent of bacteria have ever been cultivated in isolation.
Remember When You Were a Single-Celled Organism?
We too are inextricably entwined in the lives of other living things (read about the microbes within us from the January 2013 National Geographic magazine). We consider ourselves highly independent and able to adapt to countless environments, but we simply could not survive without the cooperation of countless single-celled organisms around us and within us.
It’s also good to remember that for one brief, shining moment, each of us lived as just a single cell as well.
With every droplet of water, every handful of soil, and every breath of air teeming with life, any investigation into the world of the single-celled brings new discoveries. It is in hopes of such revelations that Ginny Edgcomb came to the Falklands, to explore this little known part of the South Atlantic, and to team up with scientists in different fields to gain a better perspective on life at all scales on these remote and beautiful islands.