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Uploaded:2022-05-23
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For an activity that mostly involves sitting and staring, microscopy is a surprisingly high stakes task. On the other side of the lens are drops full of potential, a multitude of worlds to unravel and examine. But they’re also fragile worlds, easy to fracture and lose with just a tiny slip of the hand. The stakes only get higher when you’re dealing with an organism so rare that it’s only been reported a few times since it was first discovered in 1901.

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For an activity that mostly involves sitting and staring, microscopy is a surprisingly high stakes task. On the other side of the lens are drops full of potential, a multitude of worlds to unravel and examine. But they’re also fragile worlds, easy to fracture and lose with just a tiny slip of the hand.

The stakes only get higher when you’re dealing with an organism like this Dactylochlamys pisciformis, a creature so rare that it’s only been reported a few times since it was first discovered in 1901. This was one of those rare sightings, a clip we showed in a previous episode because we were so excited to find something so unlikely. Watching it swim around on its own, oblivious to our presence, it seems like this is what spotting a solitary tiger in the wild would feel like.

Distant, unique, and all the more precious for its rarity. But one day, our singular microbial friend vanished without a trace, leaving a trail of mysteries and inspiration in its wake. Finding this one Dactylochlamys pushed James, our master of microscopes, to try and find more.

So he went back to the spot where he’d found it, sampling the same waters over and over again so that he had drops and drops to sift and sort through for hundreds of hours on end. But for months, nothing turned up, until finally, one did. The sight had James’ hands shaking with excitement.

It’s one thing to put so much work into finding a rare organism. But the reality of success, that’s something else altogether. And all of those feelings, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of work paying off, they were, in this case, also interlaced with the fragility of what James had found.

On the one hand, he wanted to be able to watch it live its life and record those moments, capture them so that its morphology and behavior could be etched into a vivid record for scientists to study and draw conclusions from. But video is risky. To be able to see so deeply into the organism, James has to watch it with the objective close to the sample, which leaves room for only a thin layer of water for the Dactylochlamys to survive in.

And sometimes, they don’t survive, which means we would lose both the organism and the possibility of learning more about it. We’d already lost one Dactylochlamys, we didn’t want to lose another. So James was very, very careful, transferring the ciliate from the larger sample to a slide and then gently covering it with the coverslip.

He added a drop of immersion oil to the coverslip and dipped his best microscope objective into the oil. And then he pressed record, gathering around 25 minutes in the life of a rare microbe. In 1901, Robert Lauterborn, the German biologist who discovered Dactylochlamys pisciformis, gave what is perhaps the best description of the organism, saying “…it is one of the most bizarre and striking microbes I know….” And he’s right.

This might be a strange reference to make for an organism we were excited to find, but there’s something about this Dactylochlamys that resembles a lopsided Eye of Sauron. It’s that combination of the elongated shape, the large round contractile vacuole on the posterior side of its body, and the clutter of structures that project out like the spikes of a fire. Maybe a better comparison is this Actinobolina, another ciliate that we’ve talked about on this channel.

For the actinobolina, those tentacle-like spikes have a clear purpose. They help the organism trap food and feed. So perhaps the Dactylochlamys uses its own spikes for a similar purpose.

But until we see them in action, we won’t know for sure. But James also noticed something when he was comparing this second Dactylochlamys to the first one he found. They didn’t quite look the same.

There were subtle differences in their macronucleus and cilia and other parts that made him think that maybe they’re different organisms, that maybe the organism he found last year was actually not a Dactylochlamys pisciformis, but actually a related species called Dactylochlamys hystriz that was discovered in 1928 and then never found again, until James. Because both of these species have been so difficult to find, their descriptions are sparse and incomplete. So for now, we believe that the first one that James found was Dactylochlamys hystriz, and the second one was a Dactylochlamys pisciformis.

And James is working on uncovering as much as he can with the tools we have today. When both Dactylochlamys pisciformis and Dactylochlamys hystriz were discovered, the ability to study them at the genetic level wasn’t available yet. But this is a different era, and James was careful with his Dactylochlamys pisciformis in part so he could study its DNA.

But the stakes were still high, and so he still needed to be careful. He took the slide with the coverslip on top and floated it in water, letting him carefully remove the coverslip without killing the precious organism inside. Then, he needed to clean the Dactylochlamys to make sure there was nothing else that might contaminate his sample and affect his results.

So he used a pipette to grab the organism and move it over to a clean drop of water, and then again to another drop. And then one more, to one last drop before storing it in a tiny tube in his freezer. From there, this frozen Dactylochlamys will have part of its DNA sequenced, revealing the genes that make it the way it is and maybe even uncovering some of its closest microbial relations.

And that’s only the beginning. The first two Dactylochlamyses that James found took a tremendous amount of time and patience. But in the last four months, he’s found more than twenty of them!

Twenty! That’s not a huge number by microbe discovery standards, where the rapid reproduction means that you can sometimes stumble on colonies of hundreds of a single organism. But for any dactylochlamys species, twenty is windfall.

Some of them have been frozen for their own DNA studies, while others have been put under the microscope for James to watch. And sometimes he sees something new, like this species that might be Dactylochlamys hystriz, and that seems to have extended its tail out. Other times, the things he finds are very new—like “new species” new.

When you zoom in, you can see how similar yet distinct it is from the other species we’ve seen. But it will still be some time before we know enough to know whether it really is a new species. In the meantime though, the fact that we’ve found more of these Dactylochlamyses means that we have more chances to learn more about them.

Because sure, finding a rare organism is thrilling. But even more thrilling is the chance to make it a little less rare. The stakes of finding one may be lower, but that doesn’t lessen the joy of discovery, of having made something feel more common and realizing it is still precious.

Thank you for coming on this journey with us as we explore the unseen world that surrounds us. And thank you again to MyHeritage for sponsoring this episode. If the prospect of building a family tree has felt intimidating to you in the past, MyHeritage makes it easier, Using MyHeritage, you can search for and find historical records of your family and ancestors easily and you might even discover new relatives in the process.

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And right now, you can sign up for a 14-day free trial and enjoy all the features MyHeritage has to offer at the link in the description, and if you decide to continue your subscription, you’ll get a 50% discount. We’d also like to thank each and every person whose name is on the screen right now. These are some of our Patreon patrons, and without them, and all of our other patrons whose names aren’t on the screen right now, this channel could not exist.

So thank you again to all of them, and all of you for watching and supporting this channel. If you’d like to join our patreon community, you can do so over at patreon.com/journeytomicro If you’d like to see more from our Master of Microscopes James Weiss, you can check out Jam & Germs on Instagram And if you’d like to see more from us, there’s probably a subscribe button somewhere nearby.