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Microscopic to Cosmic

Friday, March 16, 2012 - 03:55 PM

Emiliania huxleyi - single-celled marine phytoplankton that produce calcium carbonate scales (coccoliths). A scanning electron micrograph of a single coccolithophore cell. Emiliania huxleyi - single-celled marine phytoplankton that produce calcium carbonate scales (coccoliths). A scanning electron micrograph of a single coccolithophore cell. (Alison R. Taylor (University of North Carolina Wilmington Microscopy Facility) [CC-BY-2.5]/Wikimedia Commons)

A while back, we aired a story by Ari Daniel Shapiro about a type of single-celled sea plankton called coccolithophores (or as we’ve been calling them around the office, “coccos.”)

We love coccos.

  1. They’re pretty – covered in little, white, chalky shields.

  2. They’re underdogs – always getting the tar kicked out of them by particularly virulent viruses. (That’s what the shields are for. Protection. It doesn’t work.)

  3. Spoiler alert here: you can see carnage of the Cocco vs. Virus war from space, reminding us once again that science is really, really cool.

 A massive bloom of phytoplankton in the Barents Sea, most likely containing coccolithophores.

A massive bloom of phytoplankton in the Barents Sea. The milky blue color strongly suggests that it contains coccolithophores. [Image and caption via NASA Earth Observatory]

Anyhow, at a certain point in the story, we learn that the viruses that attack the coccos are the virus version of huge. They’re “the leviathans of the virus world,” says our expert. Of course, in the scope of things, that’s still extremely small – smaller even than coccolithophores, which are microscopic.

Virus attacking a coccolithophore

Scanning electron micrograph of a virus attached to the surface of an Emiliania huxleyi cell. The virus particle on the right hand cell is approx. 180 nm in diameter. [Dr Keith Ryan, Marine Biological Association & Dr Willie Wilson, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, via Genome Research Limited /CC-BY-3.0]

It’s a hard thing to wrap your brain around: a giant thing that’s also a teensy thing ... but still massive next to a larger teensy thing. Luckily, we found possibly the greatest visual aid for this ever. It’s called The Scale of the Universe.” Click that link right now to load it up, because it takes a while. True to its name, it's a scalable chart of various animals, vegetables, and minerals in the known universe, i.e. what they look like and how big they look next to similarly-sized things. For example, if you zoom in past dust mite, past paramecium, all the way down to the cell nucleus range, you’re in the arena of Cocco vs. Virus. Look beyond the cell nucleus to the middle of the frame. See that black dot? That’s the largest known virus. Zoom in further. It looks scary right? Up close like that? Now zoom out and look around. You’ll notice things you may not have known. “Smallest Thing Visible to Human Eye” is actually smaller than “Human Egg,” which in turn is smaller than “Thickness of Paper.” Now keep zooming, in and out, however you choose. You’ll meet beings you may have never heard of. You'll imagine this place we all inhabit, the world, the universe, in ways you never have before. It’s amazing.

What makes “The Scale of the Universe” even more amazing is that it was built by two 14-year-old boys in California, Cary and Michael Huang. Cary got the idea after learning about the relative sizes of cells in school. But the chart wasn’t built for school. He and his brother did it just for fun. Cary says it took a year and a half. We’re pointing this out because it shows a dedication and attention to detail, for zero reward other than pure satisfaction, that you almost never see. And we just wanted to thank the Huangs for that.


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Comments [5]

Bruce from Poughkeepsie, NY, USA

I know it's a little late, but check out the Astronomy Picture of the Day 4/24/2017:

Apr. 26 2017 09:23 PM
barbara obata from SF bay area

This discussion of Coccolithic activity woke me from my afternoon stupor. I was just finishing up an investigation into the origins and legend of chalk. This episode gave me renewed hope and reverence in chalk and its origins. You can see the timeline on the legend of chalk here:

May. 13 2012 10:43 PM

OOOO! This is SO COOL!!! I had NEVER heard of this before (blooms yes, but not the meat of what causes them). I'd love to hear more from the researcher Dr. Wilson on what he is studying and the like. He was great to listen to. Thanks for your excellence in media!

Apr. 03 2012 12:15 PM
Charles kyer from Clearwater,Florida

Very interesting read,makes you think(microscopic).

Mar. 27 2012 08:09 AM
Joesco from Escondido, CA

Wow!!. Thank you Radio Lab. This was an awesome segment. I believe JFK summed it up best:

We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch - we are going back from whence we came.

Mar. 18 2012 06:52 PM

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