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A War We Need

Monday, March 05, 2012 - 07:00 PM

Coccolithophore bloom off Brittany, France Coccolithophore bloom off Brittany, France (Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC/NASA)

Every day, every moment, an epic battle is raging across the globe. It's happening in the ocean. And the evidence is both highly visible and totally hidden, depending on your perspective. In this short, the tale of an arms race involving trillions of sea creatures--and why their struggle is vital to our survival.

Reporter Ari Daniel visits with Willie Wilson, who studies phytoplankton--aka microscopic plant-like creatures--at Bigelow Laboratory in Maine. There's a war in Willie's test tubes. A certain sort of phytoplankton known as coccolithophores are engaged in a surprisingly complicated arms race with deadly viruses. A virus is problematic enough when you're a human. Now imagine being a single-cell plant and mixing it up with the hugest virus you've ever seen. The coccos (as we've taken to calling them) are outgunned, but they won't go down with out a serious fight.

Ari and Willie explain how our itsy-bitsy heroes take arms against (literally) a sea of troubles--and how this battle, and others like it, make life on Earth possible.



Ari Daniel and William Wilson


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Comments [42]

jentachi from Canada

These plankton remove carbon from the atmosphere by incorporating the carbon into calcium carbonate.

Jan. 11 2017 03:50 PM
Tristan from Pasadena

Thank you. What an amazing metaphor, that the planet breathes. My Biology teacher, Dr. Foster at Pasadena City College, introduced Radiolab to us and this is the first one I found outside of class. I am interested in Environmental Toxicology and the Elemental cycles of the environment. I wonder how the Calcium Carbonate deposition equilibrium is affected by all of the Coccolith skeletons.

Sep. 01 2016 02:29 AM
yo from yo


Mar. 01 2016 10:03 AM
Colin Webster from San Diego

The image chosen for this podcast looks extremely similar to the equation shown on the cover of Benoit Mandelbrot's "The Fractal Geometry of Nature." Life is crazy!

Aug. 22 2015 10:06 PM
Sherlock T. Dickinson

It is incredible how Mother Nature has found a way to indirectly help, not only the egotistical human species, but all oxygen breathing creatures, simply by utilizing a common occurrence. This is reciprocated by the oxygen-consuming creatures because, as they die (as we die), carbon dioxide is passed from our body, which fuels these phytoplankton to carry on blooming and passing oxygen back. The war between these tiny creatures and their virus-rivals is simply a common occurrence on the planet. It is more glory to Mother Nature that she allows them to be so finely tuned to one another that neither can fully succeed and they carry on their eternal cycle, their eternal battle.

Apr. 13 2015 04:55 PM
Asimov M. Gandalf from Orlando

That's pretty impressive. This Podcast is proof that everything in nature is important. I wonder if pollution lessens the amount of coccolithophores in the ocean, causing less virus interaction, and lessening the air we have to breath.

Apr. 05 2015 03:17 PM
Agatha B. Silverstein from Florida

The importance of small plant like organisms in the ocean fight against the viruses in the ocean. In the organisms the viruses multiply and kill the organisms. As these organisms die they send out a signal and change their plates to scales which fight against the viruses, and if all else fails they kill themselves. This process helps the organisms fight viruses in the future generations, which can be see from space. These wars create areas of land such as the Cliffs of Dover and produce the oxygen we need to breathe.

Mar. 23 2015 09:07 PM
Nethseaar from Utah

I love the use of music from Lord of the Rings and Star Wars! Great episode.

Sep. 29 2014 09:38 PM
Deb from Ca

1.which of the two viral life cycles are the viruses in this story following?
2. Do you have written transcripts of your show?

Jul. 16 2013 08:09 PM
Harold Wood from Australia

This was an excellent episode, but discussion of a possibly alternative view is needed: according to the NASA 'earth observatory' web page, the coccolithophores also release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere, becoming part of the greenhouse problem and possibly causing 'the upper layers of the ocean to become more temperate and stagnant'. More information and perhaps some resolution of the 'friend (oxygen) or foe (carbon dioxide)' issue please!

Many thanks,
Harold Wood

Oct. 25 2012 09:58 PM
Indra Manvantara

Great episode! It's really interesting that it can be seen from space. Does anybody know where I could find a downloadable recording of the chemical "distress signal" sent out by the . . . critter . . . when it's infected? Thanks.

Sep. 24 2012 09:07 PM
Patrick Roche

For those with an interest in some of the other attacks that coccolithophores face, they might read Jacqueline Ruttimann's article "Sick Seas" in Nature magazine's 31 August 2006 issue.

Jun. 27 2012 08:03 PM
Steven S from Orlando


You asked where all the Carbon comes from. I assume you meant Carbon Dioxide which the phytoplankton "breathe". Well, just as the phytoplankton breathe in CO2 and expel oxygen, us humans (and other organisms) breathe in oxygen and expel CO2.

Aside from respiration, CO2 can also be generated from decomposing organisms, burning fossil fuels, and volcanoes, among other things. The original CO2 in the atmosphere most likely originated from the massive, and constant, volcanic eruptions of early Earth.

But if you meant Carbon, and not Carbon Dioxide, well then that element is generated by nuclear fusion in stars, and is then expelled upon their deaths. Neil deGrasse Tyson actually has a wonderful (if a bit lengthy) quote concerning this:

“Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.”

May. 30 2012 02:38 AM

Nice episode! However, I'm not convinced that the cycles of viral destruction and phytoplankton blooms are a "war we need." If there were no viruses, wouldn't the coccolithophores still thrive and make oxygen? Do they make more oxygen when they are growing?

Apr. 29 2012 03:05 AM

This ties in nicely with the Fritz Haber episode in which 50% of the nitrogen in our bodies has gone through his process of nitrogen fixation.

So, Jad and Robert, where's all this carbon come from, eh?

Apr. 14 2012 12:48 PM
nik from Montana

I was listening to the pacebo episode specifically the doctor that cures the elephant skin on the young boy. The doctor thought that his confidence effected his hypnotism trials on all the other patience which is a good thought. I wonder however, since hypnotism is suggestion to the subconcious, so to speak (at least thats how I understand it), and the doctor says other patience flocked to him (expecting a cure). Could it be that in the minds of those patience they had already created in their minds great cure or action that would take place, effecting or essentially blocking the suggestion of the hypnotist. Just a thought sorry about my writing.

Apr. 09 2012 11:36 AM
Brent from San Diego, CA

About Travis' question: Anyone know the classical music that backdrops Robert's introduction (around the 1:30 mark)?
I think it is the Sigfried's Funeral March portion of Gotterdammerung. The first time I heard it was not in the opera, but while watching John Boorman's 1981 film, Excalibur.

Apr. 06 2012 05:08 PM

Anyone know the classical music that backdrops Robert's introduction (around the 1:30 mark)?

Apr. 01 2012 04:00 PM
nina from oshawa

love this show and episod wish i could share to with everyone i know

Mar. 23 2012 10:04 PM

Its amzing how advances this species is, actually pretty interesting as well!

Mar. 21 2012 04:32 PM
Ralph from Va. from Reston Va.

Could the music playing around three minutes twenty-seconds into the broadcast be provided. I would like to
get this version of the piece.


Mar. 21 2012 11:12 AM
Jenny from Oakland, CA

For some reason, I cannot make it through this entire episode without drifting off and doing something else. Sorry, Radiolab!

Mar. 16 2012 04:32 PM
Leo Santiago from Ciudad de México

Amo el trabajo y la exploración sonora y científica que realizan. Los escucho desde México D.F. y disfruto cada entrega de "Shorts", pero "A war we need" es sublime, increíble, hermoso... Lo escuché 5 veces!!! Felicidades!!

Mar. 15 2012 11:56 PM
Jim from Smithfield, VA

Excellent, clear application of science to help us understand how and why the ocean is important. I sent the link to Prof Racaniello of "This Week in Virology" as a suggested pick-of-the-week for his weekly podcast.

Mar. 14 2012 04:53 PM
O.promilla from Poland

I was quite disappointed . On average I love the show but this episode wasn't so awesome . . .

Mar. 14 2012 11:18 AM
Anastasia from Venice, CA

Great show as always. Quick question: where do I find that flash drive you mention at the start of the episode?

Mar. 13 2012 06:52 PM

so this is what Thom Yorke meant by "And while the ocean blooms, it's what keeps me alive" in the song Bloom.

Mar. 13 2012 02:50 PM
Dan Murphy from Central Oregon

Radiolab: always hot. But this episode was a sizzler. Proof that science can be far more beautiful, far more awe-inspiring, far more brain-bending than fiction. Wow! LOVED this tale.

Mar. 12 2012 10:56 PM
kn0t from chicago

Wow, what an enlightening piece. The phenomena of virus repruduction is incredible in itself, but to learn that this process is responsible for my every other breath is beyond incredible. I would love to hear more from radio lab about our aquatic neighbors and their impact on human life.

Mar. 12 2012 02:03 AM
Firemirage from Ohio

What a great show and interesting topic. As always, the quality and content keep me coming back for more.

Mar. 10 2012 03:59 PM
scottishguyonradiolabfan from SCOTLAND

yas, scottish guy on radiolab. ayyyyeeeee.

Mar. 09 2012 05:49 PM
Caitlyn from Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography

I was so excited to see this story! But I have to admit I was a bit disappointed with the discussion of this cycle of coccolithophore-> virus-> phytoplankton-> virus etc. There is no discussion of grazing by zooplankton (<200 microns) which can account for the loss of about 67% of phytoplankton every day (average across the ocean)! Imagine 67% of your yard is eaten by a rabbit every day. This grazing often accounts for the "decimation" of the bloom, in phytoplankton at least.

@1984 The effect of temperature change and ocean acidification on plankton is a very active field of study at the moment. Ocean acidification could potentially harm the coccolithophores, which make their shells out of calcium carbonate, much like corals. Increased temperatures may change the rate at which the plankton (phytoplankton and coccolithophores combined) grow. The study of intersection of these 2 changes is actively being studied and hotly contested.

Mar. 09 2012 01:39 PM
Anya Smolnikova from Boston

Thank you guys for all your work and energy! Really helpful to my life, as I'm sure many agree.

Mar. 08 2012 09:14 PM
Marek T from Pittsburgh

Great show.

Question about the production: what is the title of the classical piece that plays around the 1 or 2 minute mark?


Mar. 08 2012 09:02 PM
Bill Smith from Austin, TX

Another great story! I had no idea so much of atmospheric O2 comes from the oceans. Thank you for the education, RadioLab.

Mar. 08 2012 07:05 PM
David Herrick from Thailand

Listening to this show was like finding a window in my house that I never knew I had!

Mar. 07 2012 09:16 PM

I hoped I would find a comment here from someone knowledgeable about the effect, if any, of ocean acidification and ocean temperature increases on phytoplankton. Now I have to google for myself.

Mar. 07 2012 08:39 PM
Jess Aragon from San Juan Puerto Rico

I can't believe the first few commenters are so fixated on a word, rather than on the mystery and beauty of life. Thank you for such a great "short".

Mar. 07 2012 10:00 AM
Andrew from Arcata

Ive been thinking about how cool an ocean related radiolab program would be! Awesome!

Mar. 06 2012 07:31 PM

@allumley although that was the original definition of decimate, it was long ago updated to reflect common usage. Check Merriam Webster:

3 a : to reduce drastically especially in number
3 b : to cause great destruction or harm to

Mar. 06 2012 02:57 PM

@al lumley

That's an extremely outdated definition of the word. Nowadays, decimate pretty much refers to the destruction of a large proportion (not even necessarily a majority).

On a side, I remember doing a report on coccolithophores back in my H.S. oceanography class. Good times.

Mar. 06 2012 02:56 PM
al lumley

- Please ! Please !! PLEASE !!! Decimated Actually means reduced by 1/10th , It is the improper use of the word
( by Journalists ) that has created the false meaning of near total distruction !!!

Mar. 06 2012 02:08 PM

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