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No. 134: MAR-APR 2001

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I Must Go Down To The Goo Again!

With apologies to Masefield for mangling a line of his poetry. it really is tine to go down to the sea and examine its microstructure. The ocean is not what it seems.

When you snorkel in crystal-clear Caribbean waters, you do not sense that you are swimming in a very thin jelly. In reality, ocean water is filled with a complex tangle of microscopic strands and particles of gel. According to F. A zam , an oceanographer at Scripps:

It's not in the textbooks or in the classical explanations. The gel's existence fundamentally changes our ideas of the microcosmos in which sea organisms live. It has added another layer of complexity that people are only now starting to consider in the context of whole ocean systems . . Gel is like the dark matter of the sea.

While sea gel does not impede the snorkeler, . it does herd microbes into clumps or microniches . which we cannot see either. These microbes. in effect, exist in a tangled. 3-D mesh that affects not only their movements but also those of their prey and predators.

A few statistics confirm the amazing complexity of the seawater microcosm and its incredibly high microbe population density.

The long strands in the oceanic gel are mostly crosslinked polysaccharides. If the polysaccharides in 1 milliliter of seawater could be placed end-to-end, they would stretch out to 5,600 kilometers! Coexisting proteins would span 310 kilometers ; DNA, 2 kilometers. This same milliliter may also contain up to a million bacteria and ten times as many virus particles. Also in this brew are, on the average, 1.000 protozoans and 100 phytoplankton. It's a microscopic metropolis, about the size of a sugar cube, and one in which you may never wish to swim again!

The polysaccharides and proteins that comprise most of the thin goo are not alive, although the bacteria are. Just how this thin goo and its multitudinous inhabitants evolved has not been explained. Which came first, the goo or the bacteria? Being devoid of life's spark, the goo cannot evolve, or can it?

(LaFee, Scott; "Meet Me at the Goo," New Scientist, p. 44, November 25, 2000.)

Comment. Do similar microcosms thrive in freshwater lakes, in aquifer pores, the atmosphere? Don't shrug, even the atmosphere has its microstructure and is laden with bacteria, spores, viruses, etc.

From Science Frontiers #134, MAR-APR 2001. � 2001 William R. Corliss

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