Skip to content

Glass secrets hidden in deep

A darkfield light microscope image of a phaeodarian colony.
Colony of phaeodarian Tuscaretta globosa collected at 669 meters (2,195 feet) on December 4, 2023. Image: Natalia Llopis Monferrer © 2023 MBARI

Glass secrets hidden in deep

Written by: Natalia Llopis Monferrer (MSCA postdoctoral fellow)

Scanning electron micrograph of a phaeodarian cell capsule. The upper image shows the silica structure of one capsule, while the lower image ias a mangification on the one part.
A scanning electron microscope image of T. similis, a phaeodarian species. Image: Natalia Llopis Monferrer © 2023 MBARI

Nearly one year ago, I began my latest scientific adventure. I could almost say I started from scratch—a new lab, a new team, and a shiny new project to tackle with many new skills that needed to be learned. During my Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral fellowship at MBARI, I am working on siliceous Rhizaria, those lovely single-celled protists that stole my scientific heart during my PhD.

But what makes siliceous Rhizaria so special? Well, they can be found at all latitudes and depths, and although they are unicellular, they are capable of forming glass skeletons that display an astonishing diversity of shapes. And it is precisely in the silicification process that I put much of my energy into. I dig into the available genetic data and even create new data to uncover the genes involved in this complex process. In addition, I can witness first-hand the spectacle of their skeletons and cellular structures using various microscopy methods.

Before arriving here, even though I knew these organisms existed in the deep ocean, I never imagined that I would be so thrilled about spotting them over 500 meters below the surface. Using MBARI remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and working with ROV pilots, engineers, and researchers has given me the rare and unique opportunity to observe these astounding organisms in their habitat and collect them (almost) intact to conduct experiments. During my period here, I have had the chance to participate in numerous research cruises. Although I am an oceanographer with a slight touch of seasickness, it is always a nice experience.

Dr. Llopis Monferrer attaching samplers to ROV Ventana before a dive.
Natalia attaching detritus samplers to ROV Ventana before a dive. Image: Colleen Durkin © 2023 MBARI

When they mentioned our first cruise destination was Monterey Accelerated Research System (MARS)—MBARI’s deep-sea observatory 900 meters below the surface of Monterey Bay—I had no clue that watching the screens and witnessing the live footage from the ROV cameras would feel like being an astronaut exploring an alien planet. Except, with more water and fewer aliens, unless you count those fascinating deep creatures. MARS, the name of the cabled observatory in the Monterey Canyon, could not be more fitting!

A phaeodarian colony floating inside a D sampler collector, onboard the ship.
Phaeodarian colony collected in a detritus sampler and recovered onboard the ship. Image: Colleen Durkin © 2023 MBARI

Every sampling opportunity contributes to our understanding of these mysterious protists. For example, they may construct their skeletons in the same way diatoms do.

This project is a collaboration with the Carbon Flux Ecology team, along with Steve Haddock and Lynne Christianson. We could not do this without the talented pilots of ROV Ventana. And I cannot fail to mention Emily C. Mitchell, the artist behind the scenes. While I was busy with the microscope or at the computer, Emily was wielding pencils and brushes to combine all forms of imaging and create illustrations with all the nooks and crannies and beautiful details!

Natalia Llopis Monferrer holding up a roller tank containing a phaeodarian colony.
A phaeodarian colony inside a roller tank in the Carbon Flux Ecology lab. Image: Colleen Durkin © 2023 MBARI
Natalia Llopis Monferrer removing a phaeodarian colony from a D sampler onboard the ship.
After recovering ROV Ventana, Natalia removes the phaeodarians from the detritus sampler containers. Image: Colleen Durkin © 2023 MBARI