I was lucky enough to meet Lynne Quarmby, Professor or Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, during our Arctic Expedition aboard the Antigua.
Lynne is investigating a type of Algae which makes snow and ice look green or pink.
She showed us some beautiful videos of algae and explained how they can move about with appendages called flagella. Flagella are thin, hair like ‘arms’ which stick out and move so that the algae can zoom around in the water. I was really surprised because I know that algae is a plant and I had no idea that it could move on it’s own!
We all kept a good look out for pink or green snow but I haven’t seen any yet.
Lynne brought her microscope on the ship so that we could look at some of the things around us which are usually invisible.
We can see the mountains and the oceans, changes in the weather, the rain and snow; we can see ice building up and melting, and Polar bears and whales. But most important are the things we can’t see, they are all around us busily getting on with building the foundations of life as we know it. Microorganisms are the creatures which appear under the microscope. Zooplankton are the tiny animals like Krill, which whales eat, and Phytoplankton are tiny plants like algae, which make energy from sunlight.
A food chain is a good illustration of how important microorganisms are. The Arctic Cod likes to eat Phytoplankton, the Seals eat the Arctic Cod, and the Polar Bear eats the seals. If there are not enough Phytoplankton then the whole chain collapses.
I wanted to investigate microorganisms, so Lynne equipped me with plastic tubes and I collected samples of melt water as I went exploring on land.
To be scientific you have to take pictures of the collection sites, and label everything carefully making an exact record of where it was found.
I made the records and hurried back to our makeshift laboratory. Lynne showed me how to use the pipette to suck up water and put a couple of drops onto a glass slide.
We covered the drops with a cover slip, a tiny slither of glass, very thin and easy to break.
Then I looked through the microscope, and…
I kept thinking I could see things but they turned out to be tiny pieces of rock dust.
Just crystal clear melted snow with nothing alive to be seen.
I have learnt that being a scientist can be very dissappointing.
But you have to carry on.
And collect again.
This time we put the sample into the portable centrifuge. The centrifuge is a round machine, it whizzes the water around very fast and because of centrifugal force, all the tiny bits of anything in there, are spun to the bottom of the tube. Then I can pipette them up and put them on a slide.
And this time…
We found an algae!
Algae uses chloroplast – green – to make sunlight into energy. It is just one single cell and it had flagella like Lynne’s pink algae, I watched it spinning and gliding around like a ballet dancer.
Sadly I haven’t had enough time amongst all my other adventures, to find out more about these microorganisms. I wonder what the algae do in the Arctic Winter when it is dark day and night. How do they cope with being frozen for months at a time?
Lynne is a painter as well as a Biochemist, we talked about artists and a scientists being similar. Both are people who are curious, who want to investigate and explore the world around them. And both have the need to share with other people what they are finding out, and they can do this in different ways.
Artists and scientists working together can have some very interesting conversations and pose some very interesting questions.
At the end of my Arctic Adventures I will gather artists and scientists together and we will start some more discussions and experiments.
I wonder what we will come up with.