Friday, November 18, 2011

Swamp Water

Home for many microbes
On a whim, I did an internet search on 'swamp water'. What came up included alcoholic drink concoctions and a 1941 movie based on an earlier book which looked like more of a drama than the potential horror promised in the title. No search result came up for swamp water as the random mixing of soda pops (which always came out brown for me because of the necessity of root beer). When I was a kid, I looked forward to any opportunity to mix pops and called it 'swamp water'. I did an informal survey of friends, and I'm not the only one who made swamp water, in fact, a few friends admitted they still do it, especially with slurpees. It even turns out some kids today are still making swamp water.

Speaking of kids and swamp water, I ran a group activity for kids last week on microbes (specifically the oceanic variety, although discussions didn't go that way). I borrowed a microscope and brought in water wrung out of my aquarium's filter, otherwise known as my in-house swamp water. The whole activity reminded me of when I was kid and my science-teacher father brought home a microscope from work for me to use. All the little critters out of my aquarium's filter became visible to me.

We haven't always known about microbes. Anton van Leeuwenhoek (I have no idea how to pronounce his name) discovered these tiny life forms everywhere in 1675. For his discovery, he used a microscope of his own design – one of the earliest microscopes. By definition microbes are simply creatures you need a microscope to see, and they typically form the base of an ecosystem. According to Wikipedia, many blame the failure of Biosphere II on an improper balance of microbes. Microbes are incredibly useful: they are required for brewing, wine making, baking, pickling and fermentation; they play a role in decomposition of organic matter; and they aid our own digestion by synthesizing vitamins and fermenting complex carbohydrates into digestible form. Microbes aren't all beneficial, in fact, many infectious diseases can be attributed to them.

My favourite of the aquarium-filter microbes are amoeba, partly because I can identify them and partly because they lack a definable shape. They are moving blobs that use their blobiness to envelope their prey. Amoeba were discovered by August von Rosenhof (another name I can't pronounce) in 1757, a surprisingly long time after the discovery of microbes especially considering how ubiquitous they are (in every aquarium I've ever had amoebas have flourished).

With the exception of amoeba, I can't identify specific microbes. They are hugely diverse: there are ones that swim like snakes, ones shaped like tiny ovals zooming around, and ones formed as large blobs that change shape as they move – plus many more. And this is just in my aquarium (which was originally seeded from local pond water). What would I find in my soil? Under the oak leaves in the park nearby? In a tidal pool? How about in my kitchen sink's drain? I'm always amazed by the diversity of critters right under our noses (or even in our noses). We live in a wild place.

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