by Elous Telma
On a secluded Greek island in the 1950s, an enormous abandoned mine is filled with sea water for a major international experiment in marine biology. It is intended to study natural selection and, perhaps, evolution in a new aquatic ecosystem. However, the experiment and the island are eventually abandoned.
Decades later, a sailor’s photograph of the corpse of a large shark prompts a team of biologists to visit the island. The team discovers unique environments, including an underwater brine lake. The life forms act in ways that affect the fauna on the island as well as themselves.
The new ecosystem is dangerous. How to cope with it? The biologists will need some form of interspecies communication with the sea life and even with a cat that has been stranded on the island. It’s simple in theory...
Chapter 6: Meni and the Deep-Water Lab
A couple of weeks later, Meni reached her new lab. Her new Professor, Alberto Cannavaro, from Italy, was spending much time in Crete, at a convenient distance from L’Atalante, his current research focus. Meni had just registered at the University and already found herself on a research vessel heading towards the lakes. Acquaintances were made en route.
“Alexandros said I should take you in,” Cannavaro stated.
“Thank you,” Meni replied, appreciating both Alexandros’ recommendation and Cannavaro’s disclosure.
“So, Meni, are you one of the few Greek girls with a short name?” continued Cannavaro.
“Melpomeni is my full name,” she corrected.
“Okay, okay, let’s show you around our little castle, Meni.”
Meni made the acquaintance of everyone on the boat and got a crash course on the instrumentation. The team’s most precious and essential tool was a little green, remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that would be sent to the lakes to collect samples.
The ROV was roughly the size of a large Greek watermelon. It had a little robotic arm, a camera, and a few other appendages used for sample collection and storage. It would be tethered to the ship and operated using a controls like those of a video game.
While the team was prepping the Watermelon, Cannavaro dedicated a few moments to being a professor to Meni. “Did you read our paper on Loricifera, Meni?”
“Yes,” she replied, ‘the first multicellular life form that is a true anaerobe.” It was a major discovery that Cannavaro and his Scandinavian collaborators had recently made.
More than bacteria lived in L’Atalante’s hostile, saline, oxygen-lacking waters. Three distinct species of Loricifera had been discovered. They are complex organisms: tiny, but fully recognizable as animals, looking like minuscule jellyfish about one millimeter in length.
Though small, they have tentacles and a head, a front and a back, and are complex, multicellular organisms. These creatures can live their entire life cycle without oxygen. Their bodies had adapted to the environment in such a way that even their biochemistry was different from that of their “normal” cousins living just above, in familiar waters.
The important scientific question was whether Loricifera had started as normal organisms that adapted to brine-lake conditions or whether they had a completely different evolutionary start and had simply ended up looking similar — at least from a distance — to oxygen-using Loricifera.
“That’s right, Meni,” affirmed Cannavaro. “We now know that complex multicellular organisms can live without the need for oxygen. We don’t yet know what to do with this; it is still changing our view of biology.”
“Of life,” contributed Meni. “I’d like to see the lake,” she continued.
“You will. A video of it, at least. It’s really pretty; I can show you on the monitor the footage we got last week.”
Meni made her first, polite, request, “Can I see it afterwards? I’d like to see the real-time video first.”
“Yeah, you got it,” said Cannavaro, realizing that Meni was probably seriously invested in her new line of research. Cannavaro smiled twice. These students are the most productive, he thought. He also thought Meni’s request was somewhat naive and corny in a cute sort of way.
Meni made herself available to the team preparing the Watermelon. Of course, she was experienced enough to know that no one would let her close to the vessel without an extensive course in handling it and its sensitive extremities. But her gesture was appreciated.
The team, apart from Meni and Cannavaro, consisted of Reinhardt, a visiting post-doc from Sweden, and Aris, a long-time post-doc of Cannavaro’s, as well as two expert technical assistants, Garyphallos and Despina, full members of Cannavaro’s team.
They explained to Meni that they wanted to be able to keep Loricifera alive in the lab for long periods of time and observe its entire life cycle. They expected surprises, because this animal was very different from anything they had ever seen before. They also hoped to find something bigger than the one-millimeter long critter, but this was not necessarily a scientific wish; such a thing would only be even more fascinating.
They also explained to Meni how Loricifera may be a hybrid organism, part jellyfish, part bacterium. It needed the latter part to give it the biochemical ability to generate energy in brine.
“But we are also hybrids,” Meni commented. “Our mitochondria used to be bacteria themselves.”
She was right, but here the team was investigating a different animal that had emerged from a different symbiosis, one not seen before. Anyway, they were all glad to see Meni had done her homework.
* * *
The Watermelon was prepped and took its plunge into waters 3.5 kilometers deep. “Bring me life, guys,” Cannavaro wishfully joked. “Anaerobic, please!”
In the research vessel’s control room, Garyphallos was remotely piloting the Watermelon and, Despina was making sure the tether was not entangled. The rest of the crew were watching the real-time video feed on the control room monitors. LED lights illuminated the vertical path that the Watermelon was taking to reach L’Atalante.
From the ship, the waters seemed dark, almost non-translucent. But when the Watermelon went in and turned its headlights on, it was immediately obvious how clear the waters were. The team felt they would be able to see the sea floor, had they only had a strong enough light source. But, of course, not even sunlight can reach so far down.
The trip itself was worth the expedition; the crew lived and breathed sea observations. Even during long distances where no marine life could be seen, the feeling of going deeper and deeper into isolated, uncharted, heavy-pressure waters was exciting enough. But when they actually saw organisms like salps, close to the surface, or small, maybe unknown species of fish and jellyfish, they found the sights awe-inspiring. Yet their objective was still kilometers below; that was where science would start for them.
Meni saw L’Atalante for the first time. It was a lake with its own shoreline, with waves forming miles under water. The Watermelon hovered above the surface of the lake, close to its shore. Its robotic arm penetrated the surface and scooped some sediment from the brine.
The lake was too dense for the Watermelon to sink in it, and its depth was not really known. The submersible was sent close to the shore to make sure it reached brine sediment,. The sample went into a storage container, and the Watermelon began to be raised back to the surface.
On the ship, some of the sample was placed under a microscope. The Loricifera looked like a normal jellyfish, almost unexciting, swimming in an environment devoid of oxygen and full of noxious chemicals. Nothing seemed to be missing from this animal. It didn’t look like a primitive jellyfish; it wasn’t simpler than other, more common life forms. As far as a visual inspection went, it appeared complete.
Cannavaro asked her for an assessment. “Are you happy to work on this mysterious little bug for the next three months or so?”
“Yes, I am,” she readily replied.
“Good, Meni. I’m glad. I also like whales...” Cannavaro paused. “But you understand why we do what we do.”
Meni followed Cannavaro on the deck, where they inspected instruments. “This ‘bug’ looks a bit like a small Turritopsis dohrnii,” she remarked.
“Ah! Now I am REALLY happy you joined the team. The immortal jellyfish. What are you thinking about?”
Turritopsis dohrnii is one of kind. It is a tiny jellyfish, a few millimeters long. It stands out from most known animals on earth in that is, from one point of view, immortal. After it reaches sexual maturity, it can revert back to its immature, polyp state. And it can go back and forth indefinitely, essentially giving it an infinite life span unless disease or predation breaks the cycle.
“Maybe Loricifera is also immortal,” Meni hypothesized.
“Maybe,” said Cannavaro. “But, Meni, what is the advantage of immortality for Turritopsis?”
“I don’t know,” replied Meni. “It’s still a jellyfish living like a jellyfish. It’s no King of the Jellyfish or anything like that.”
Cannavaro pressed on with the logical arguments. “Then why would Loricifera want to be immortal?”
Meni faked an answer. “Because it lives in brine, and there isn’t as much brine as there is ocean. It probably needs all the tricks in the book to survive all these millions of years.”
“Okay,” said Cannavaro, “you’ve just outlined your project.”
“It will take more than three months,” Meni stoically calculated.
“You can turn it into a PhD thesis when the time comes,” said the Professor.
This administrative talk had an effect on Meni. She went from having a fun scientific conversation to worrying about her project, which would rely heavily on access to deep sea underwater brine lakes and minuscule, recently discovered anaerobic animals. “Are we freezing some samples?” she asked Cannavaro, who recognized her anxiety.
“Yes, in water, in glycerol, dry; some goes to the fridge in case it can be kept in a dormant state. Any other ideas?” Then he discreetly giggled at her nervousness.
* * *
On the way back to Crete, dolphins followed the research ship. The team saw mixed pods of common bottlenose and striped dolphins. Meni took pictures so she could send these to Alexandros.
After the long field trip, and after placing some anaerobic Loricifera in the freezer and some in special fridges on the boat, the Cannavaro team went back on the island of Crete, and out for some food on the town of Rethymno. Sitting by the harbor and sipping some ouzo, the team was waiting for their food. Mostly, they were relaxing and decompressing, deservingly. But all were also contemplating their project and, mostly, what it really meant to know that a complex organism could exist without the direct influence of oxygen.
Aris was waiting for his swordfish souvlaki. He couldn’t resist going through some footage they had acquired that morning with the Watermelon, but he set it aside when the fish arrived.
After dinner, Aris said he wanted to check his e-mail quickly and then switch off. A few moments later it became apparent that he had received an important message. He was squinting. “Hey, Prof! Tell me if this is real,” Aris exclaimed as he passed the laptop to Cannavaro.
Cannavaro seemed even more alarmed as he, too, squinted while staring at the computer screen. “What the hell is that!?” was his not so academic input.
Everyone at the table was now staring and squinting at the laptop screen. They were looking at a photograph that seemed incomprehensible. The grainy image had clearly been taken at dusk; so nothing was very clear. Those who knew could tell the image had been taken on Dioptra. A part of the eastern section of the island was shown. They could see the hole that had been blasted in the wall, decades before, to provide an exit for Aquarium creatures.
“It’s the opening of—” Aris didn’t have time to complete his sentence.
“I know where this is. This is the Aquarium,” offered Cannavaro.
“Yes, it is,” said Aris.
Meni’s ears moved a little.
The photograph showed a large fish lodged in the hole, blocking it. The carcass was probably several meters in length. The photographer had used a flashlight or, probably, a smartphone flash to illuminate as much as possible the fish, but it still looked mostly like a shadow. How to explain it?
Cannavaro switched to all-business mode, and his inquisitive nature was fully activated.
Cannavaro: “Aris, who sent this to you?”
“My friend Mari, in the Tama group. She e-mailed me the picture and said they’re heading to the Aquarium.”
Cannavaro continued the interrogation. “What is this fish? How big is it?”
“That’s all I’ve got,” said Aris. “But the picture was sent to Tama, he didn’t take it. It was sent by some eco-hippie sailor who ended up there, somehow.”
Cannavaro read the email text and contemplated ways to get more information immediately. “I could call Taro Tama and ask him what this is about, but your friend, who sent you the picture, may get in trouble with him.”
Aris replied, “I don’t think she sent it like that. And she wouldn’t have sent this out without Taro’s permission.”
“Well, I should check my email, then,” said Cannavaro.
Taro Tama was an old colleague of Cannavaro’s. He headed a section of the Marine Biology department in Tokyo, and he often met up with Cannavaro at conferences. That’s where members of the two teams would meet, and several had made friendships of their own. They had collaborated on several projects. The Japanese government had given Taro resources: he had a remarkable vessel and good people working for him.
Cannavaro’s inbox contained a letter from Taro with the same picture. In the end, there was no security breach. But there wasn’t much information, either. Taro’s team was heading to the Aquarium to investigate. They were bringing equipment to see if there was anything in the Aquarium.
“Judging from the image, they will probably find something,” commented Reinhardt.
Taro’s email ended in “Call me, please.” He hardly needed to ask.
Cannavaro called Taro. Cannavaro left the table even before the food arrived. He stood several meters away and, behind him, the team was staring at him, trying to overhear as much information as they could. They continued to eat dinner during the phone call.
“Taro-san, thanks for the picture.”
“You are welcome, Alberto-san,” Taro replied. “We are on our way to check it out.”
“What do you expect to find?” said Cannavaro. “I don’t understand what this is about.”
“Neither do we,” Taro continued. “All we have is a really strange story and the picture you saw.”
“What is it?” asked Cannavaro. “None of us can identify it. It should be easy for us, but we don’t know what that thing is,” he continued.
“We don’t know either,” Taro explained. He went on to say that without knowing exactly how large the hole was in the side of the Aquarium, they had no way to estimate size reliably. Besides, even if they knew, decades of erosion could have made the holes much bigger. They just had to go there and see for themselves.
The fish could be a whale shark, perhaps sun-dried and mummified, although the shape of the head as it appeared in the grainy image resembled more that of a six-gilled shark. “That’s all I know. I saw the same picture you did,” said Taro. “Anyway, it is time someone go to the Aquarium and see what is there.”
“To see what has survived, if it is still there,” added Cannavaro. “And who took the picture? What’s his story?”
Taro explained that the photographer was some wealthy German drifter who liked to sail the seas alone. “Alberto, all I know of this guy is that his name is Frank.”
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma