The Slime Whisperer: One Biologist's Instagram Disguises Civic Science Lessons as Visual Art
Sally Warring has promised me a peep into a hidden universe. In her laboratory on the fifth floor of the NYU genomics building, Warring, a Ph.D. student in biology, prepares a microscope, pipetting a single drop of green pond water into a dimple at the center of a petri dish. She focuses and refocuses the lens, and at first nothing resolves. Then, suddenly, the viewfinder explodes in green stars — tiny bright orbs, clustered in twos and threes, their contours blurring and resharpening in an endless succession of little visual ripples. The whole scene quivers like a mirage. We've reached 100-times magnification — about the same as Warring's followed/following ratio on social media, where this tableau will likely end up. Just like Taylor Swift's friends at the beach, Warring's waterborne scum samples are Instagram-famous.
For the past year, Warring has run @pondlife_pondlife, a collection of lovingly captured images of freshwater-based slime. Sometimes her photos and videos reveal the microbes' Lilliputian dramas of survival, with captions providing harrowing detail — amoebas hastily building houses to shelter themselves from predators; diatoms, sleek and sticklike, huddling in tight colonies that look like Lincoln Logs. Sometimes the posts offer lighter fare, like the hulking ciliate that resembles a "brontosaurus" or the group of lissome cyanobacteria filaments that "woke up like this." There's even the odd wonky dick joke. "Oh my, what is this?" begins one video caption describing a stentor Warring found in the water by the Prospect Park boathouse, which slowly elongates its translucent brownish body into something rather penis-like. "Here we can see it opening up again to its 'trumpet' form," the caption reads. "Though one might also describe it as looking a little phallic." The effect is as contagious as some of Warring's subjects: Her 34,000-strong following is up more than 400 percent since February, when an Atlantic blog post went so far as to compare one of her images to the work of Gustav Klimt.
Pondlife is intended to educate as much as delight: Warring almost exclusively features bodies of water in and around the city so that residents might learn a thing or two about the tiny creatures we rarely think about — but that nonetheless influence our health and the environment in innumerable ways. Wherever the tiny beasts are, Warring finds them. ("I've definitely jumped a few fences to get to a good pond.") She's the Neil deGrasse Tyson of swarming invisibilia, and her message is: You're surrounded.
That fact will be evident this summer as nearly every pond in the city blooms a crown of green muck. That scuzz likely contains cyanobacteria, single-cell organisms that were, some 2.3 billion years ago, the first living things to figure out how to turn sunlight into food and expel oxygen — like all plants now do — resulting in what biogeochemists call "The Great Oxygenation Event": Without pond scum, there would be no air to breathe on Planet Earth, much less a city called New York.
"Even today, about half of the oxygen production on the planet is coming from algae," says Andrew Juhl, a marine biologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. The tiny creatures also play a big role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. "In a global sense, they are responsible for various transformations that explain how our world works. Algae are like the grass and the trees of aquatic environments. You can imagine what the world would be like without those."
If you were to accidentally swallow microbes, they'd find themselves in good company, joining an internal fiesta that never stops. Every one of us carries millions of microorganisms in our guts and mouths and on our genitalia. Most of the time we live in harmony — intestinal E. coli has long been known to aid digestion — but sometimes the human microbiome, as it's called, runs amok. Warring herself studies things that live in human vaginas, and her doctoral work focuses on Trichomonas vaginalis, a sexually transmitted parasite that can cause nasty infections yet is carried by as many as half of all humans on Earth. We don't really know much about why, says Warring, "because it used to just be considered a sort of women's nuisance."
Over the past several years, however, scientists have learned more and more about the microbiome, and they now suspect that it might be responsible for more than simply helping us break down food or causing disease. The small symbionts may in fact play powerful roles in our mental health, our risk of certain types of cancer, and possibly even who we're attracted to. Capitalizing on the frenzy of scientific interest, the American Museum of Natural History's ongoing special exhibit "The Secret World Inside You" showcases the flourishing research into just how deep our dependence on the microbiome goes (a few of Warring's Instagram videos are featured).
Warring harvests samples from a trash-ridden pond in Queens.
When it comes to enjoying a personal cocktail of unicellular creatures, humanity is not special. Algae are the base of every aquatic food chain on the planet; any life-form that lives in water either eats them or eats something else that does. But over the course of hundreds of years, industrial pollution and ramshackle waste management systems have decimated algae populations across the world, including around New York. By the 1980s, water contamination in the city's streams and bays had devastated the local marine microorganism population. Since then, New York's water quality has improved in fits and starts, and the evidence that life is returning is all over Warring's Instagram: Shimmering dinoflagellates spin like tops beneath the placid surface of Harlem Meer; the whip-tailed euglena — a vivid-green photosynthesizer scientists believe might one day be farmed for food — gyrates in samples from Corona Park.
But threats to the recovery remain. Among the greatest is the city's severe sewage overflow. New York's wastewater infrastructure is so feeble that whenever it rains more than one-twentieth of an inch, untreated human waste bypasses the region's overwhelmed sewage plants and sluices directly into the city's waterways. (Recently, environmental activist Christopher Swain went for a swim in the Gowanus Canal; after the stunt, he told gathered reporters that the water had tasted like "mud, poop, ground-up glass, grass, and gasoline.")
That noxious slurry not only harms the organisms already living there; it is also the New York Harbor system's single largest source of pathogens harmful to humans, including the bugs that cause dysentery and gonorrhea. So far no gonorrhea bacteria have flitted across any of Warring's samples from the Gowanus. But it's a fair wager that seeing a hairy, double-sphered infectious agent furiously swimming through social feeds might prompt her followers to wonder why there's such toxic water in their backyards, and who is doing something about it.
Spreading fear, however, is never the goal of a Pondlife post; rather, it's to foster a healthy respect for the creatures that hold the world up. In one recent example, a video showed a "trumpet"-form stentor "juggling" a cyanobacteria colony as if it were playing with its food. One commenter was unimpressed ("how gay lol"), but clearly @thebarefootdesigner was moved. "I was breathless for a minute thinking that wee spinning guy was going to get swallowed!" they wrote. "You've got me forming emotional attachments to these guys."
Back in her lab, Warring cranked the magnification to 400x — she'd risked straying from the path to get to an ornamental pond in a West Village community garden and now meant to get her money's worth.
A chartreuse star appeared, its center a matrix of symmetrical holes like sliced lotus root. "That's a pediastrum," Warring said. "It's a colony of green algae." Something else, an amorphous single-celled body, darted across the field of view. "There's a few swimmers in there, too," she quipped, grinning. A whole ecosystem, in fact, small but undeniably alive.
"It's almost like they have personalities," Warring told me. "And they're beautiful as well. It's easy to be attracted to beautiful things."
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