Mudlarks, Ragpickers, and Majesty
Startled awake by a Covid-fueled dream, my mind reels from the early industrial scene on the banks of a river. Huge cobblestones pave the slope toward the water and old rusty train cars dangle at the peak like huge Christmas tree ornaments. A couple in 17th century style clothing starts walking down the slope with their two children and a few small dogs. I have had this dream before. It has always felt like it was from another era, another planet, and another universe.
I am still half sick and struggle to cleanse the scene from my mind. The sun, thankfully, shows itself. I know this will bring one of my favorite views from my bedroom window. At a certain time in the early winter morning when the sun is hovering just above the frosted landscape, a shaft of sunlight pierces through the back door of my little garden house.
The sunbeam continues straight across the little building hitting the stained-glass window in the front door. The old door is from England, complete with a mail drop. We found the door in a salvage store very discounted due to damage from too many rainstorms. The way the sunlight makes the colors of the glass glow enchants me. Its hushed shrine feeds me to the morning. I do not tire of this scene and miss it on a gloomy day.
Sipping my morning coffee, even though Paxlovid has ruined the taste, I read through the early emails. I am intrigued that the articles from my daily science feed describe discoveries that partly involve digging in mud along the banks of rivers on the one hand and peering into our universe on the other. My strange dream foreshadowed this and pushes me into further examination. The couple in my dream look like they could be ragpickers and mudlarkers, seeking something of value from other peoples’ trash in the streets or wading along riverbanks when the water is low looking for treasures emerging from the mud. I think they must be teaching their little children how to do these things.
One article is about the discovery of a new Asgard, an archaea, the third domain of life. The first two domains are the more familiar-- bacteria and eukaryotes. This new Asgard has been put into a separate genus with the tentative name Lokiarchaeum ossiferum. It has tentacles with thickenings and small bubbles here and there. Its complex cell wall has structures poking out like lollipops. This latter structure sounds too much like the Covid virus appearance to me. I don’t need to be reminded of my too cozy relationship with it just now. An environmental microbiologist in the Netherlands, Thijs Ettema, who discovered eukaryotic-like genes in strange archaea from sediment samples, said about this new one, “Overall, the cellular structures of [these cells] look like they come from another planet.” My dream again.
These Asgards are hard work. It took 12 years of various trials to culture the first Asgard. Plus, finding them basically involves mudlarking. Many are a half foot or so down in the muddy banks of rivers. This new one came from mud fifteen centimeters deep along a canal in Slovenia. Other Asgards may be found in hydrothermal vents. Strange things, these are. Some scientists think they may have been the key ancestor of complex cells.
From electron microscopes and the world of microorganisms to giant telescopes and the universe— the new Asgard and photographs of stars, some 12.9 billion light years from earth-- are discoveries this year. The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, aka JWST, was launched on Christmas Day 2021 after two decades plus of planning and work by several thousand technicians, scientists, and engineers from 15 countries. These people, like the microbiologists, forgot their differences and dreamed and worked and pulled together year after year to make this happen.
The images of both the microscopic Lokiarchaeum ossiferum and the edge of the Carina Nebula make me gasp with awe. Digging in mud for Asgards and building the most magnificent telescope ever made shows what can happen when people with a common vison discover parts of our world so much bigger than we are, so mysterious, so full of wonder.
This is human majesty. And the majesty of our world and the universes around us.
Happy New Year! New Year's Eve 2022
Image 1. Door of garden house by M. Herman-Giddens
Image 2. Rodrigues-Oliveira, T., Wollweber, F., Ponce-Toledo, R.I. et al. Actin cytoskeleton and complex cell architecture in an Asgard archaeon. Nature (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-05550-y.
Image 3. This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth.