Some notes on Urschleim and the Origin of Chalk


A chalky suspension of coccolithophores, chalk makers

A chalky suspension of coccolithophores, chalk makers

Coccolithophores are single cell microscopic organisms that live in large numbers throughout the sunlight zone  of the Earth’s oceans. Unlike other types of phytoplankton, these organisms surround themselves with a rigid microscopic armour made of calcium carbonate. This exoskeleton comprises of at least 30 small hubcap shaped calcium carbonate scales known as coccoliths.   Whilst coccolithophores are microscopic they have had a dramatic impact on our planet. As these minute organisms live and die in their trillions, they sink to the ocean’s floor where over time their calcium carbonate  plates form rocks such as chalk and limestone. . Over geological time, these organisms have removed significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Today, it is estimated that coccolithophores deposit more than 1.5 million tons of calcite a year, making them the leading calcite producers in the ocean. As the concentration of carbon dioxide it the Earth’s atmosphere increases, and its oceans become acidified, it has been predicted that coccolithophores will be less able to generate calcium carbonate and this may have global implications for the carbon cycle.

Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) was one of the first to examine and to detect coccoliths within marine sea muds and was the first to use the term “coccolith”. However, he initially thought that he had discovered a new organic substance and believed it to be a form of primordial matter, the source of all organic life, after Haeckel had theorized about Urschleim (primordial slime).

Explorations with Acorn Cup Petri Dishes/Bioluminscence and Elfen Cups

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In the light and floating on the surface of water

In the light and floating on the surface of water

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As a scientist I’ve used bacterial bioluminence many times to reveal invisible yet significant events, such as  changes in gene expression within  bacterial cells, or the life and death of these cells after they have been exposed to an antibiotic. Might these bacteria, which produce an ephemeral and uniquely engaging blue light, also be used to reveal other difficult percieve natural phenomena. To explore this I have developed a natural and biodegradable lighting system that uses bioluminescent bacteria, and uniquely, acorn cup Petri dishes. Here I have shown how they might be used to illuminate the surface of a natural body of water and also to reveal its hidden currents.

Die Urpflanze ?: Cyanobacterial diversity

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Cyanobacteria are aquatic and photosynthetic bacteria that have been hugely important in shaping the course of evolution and the content of the Earth’s atmosphere.  The oxygen rich atmosphere upon which we depend,  was generated by vast numbers of newly arisen  photosynthetic  cyanobacteria during the Archaean and Proterozoic Eras. Before this time, the atmosphere had a very different chemistry and was unsuitable for life as we know it today.  The other striking contribution of the cyanobacteria to the evolution of life is the origin of plants. The chloroplast, the organelle within the cells of plants which carries out photosynthesis,  actually  derives from a cyanobacterium living within the plant’s cells. At some point in the late Proterozoic, or in the early Cambria periods, cyanobacteria became resident within eukaryote cells, making food for the eukaryote host in return for a home, in an event known as endosymbiosis.

Shortly before Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen in 1790, he engaged with the concept of the Archetypal Plant, or the Urpflanze. Whilst there is no reference to the Urpflanze in his book, it is described in his letters to Charlotte von Stein sent by Goethe during his stay in Palermo, Italy.

 “Seeing such a variety of new and renewed forms, my old fancy suddenly came back to mind: among this multitude might I not discover the Primal Plant (Urpflanze)?

Die Urpflanze is Goethe’s imagined plant which contains embedded within it, the potential to generate all possible future forms of plant life.  Because of their role in the origin of all plant life, cyanobacteria must be one vital component of Goethe’s imagined species.



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I took part in Anna Dumitriu’s “The Romantic Disease” workshop at the Waterman’s Art Centre yesterday. The participants made textile designs and instructed me to inoculate them with pigmented bacteria back in the lab. The initial incocula were faint and nearly colourless so  the colours on the resulting textiles, that can be seen here, are generated by the growth/movement of the bacteria as they respond to the textile designs. The pigmented bacteria give rise to the purple and red colours. A collaboration with very unruly life forms!

The Smart Phone As Vector 2014

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Bacteria can utilize many different things as vectors in order to promote their transmission. Insects, water, food, coughs and sneezes, sexual contact, and rain are just a few examples. The mobile phone appears to be no exception this rule. As part of BMS1035 Practical and Biomedical Bacteriology, an undergraduate module that I run, I get the students to to imprint their mobile phones onto bacteriological growth media so that we might determine what they might carry. From these results, it seems that the mobile phone doesn’t just remember telephone numbers, but also harbours a history of our personal and physical contacts such as other people, soil, etc.The images here are from the latest version of this experiment performed by the University of Surrey Level 4 UG  students in 2014.

Rotifer Art

Rotifers, which are also known as wheel animals  were first described by Rev. John Harris in 1696, and later by Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1703. When they feed, the coronal cilia create a current that sweeps food into the mouth. This then passes into a chewing pharynx,  which has  powerful muscular walls and microscopic calcified jaw-like structures called trophi.

Here a Rotifer has been exposed to indian ink which it interacts with to create a dynamic work of art. There is also a deeper message here, in that the basis of indian ink is soot, a micropolltant,  and the pristine Rotifer can be clearly seen to become brown as it accumulates the soot particles. Anything that feeds on this Rotifer will also become contaminated.  The art then,  becomes a striking demonstration of how pollutants can enter an ecology, and become concentrated within it.

Protozoal Paintings


Here as an artist might move paints across a canvas, the animalcule Volvox aureus creates dynamic art, as it moves watercolours within its own watery medium, and according to its own microscopic whims. Babies, Monkeys, Elephants, and now Protozoa it seems, can all “paint”



I’ve worked scientifically and artistically with bacterial bioluminescence for over 25 years but I still never get bored of experiencing it. Prepping for an installation, an incubator room illuminated with Photobacterium phosporeum, you could easily read a book under this biological light. Sublime!

A Deeply Personal Residue


Whenever/Whatever we touch, we leave behind a normally invisible residue. Finger prints fatty traces of contact, can be developed and can also incriminate. Here I touched a microscope slide with my index finger and observed the microscopic droplets of my skin oils, that make up the finger print, using DIC Microscopy.