Reprinted with permission from Albany, Vol. 5(2):3-7, 1996.


Research scientist Sam Bowser [U Albany Alumnus; B.S.'79, Ph.D.'84] spends three months a year diving in the frigid ocean waters of Antarctica to study what he calls "giants of the deep." By giants, though, Bowser isn't referring to whales or sharks or huge squid or luminescent fish swimming the seas. Bowser's giants, instead, are large, single-celled creatures known as Foraminifera. Sometimes the size of a fingernail, these important, one-celled protozoans inhabit the ooze at the bottom of the ocean. One of the most abundant organisms on Earth, Foraminifera are fascinating and mysterious creatures with capabilities that would seem far too complex for their size. For one thing, each Foraminifera builds itself a tiny but sophisticated shell out of grains of sand glued together with a highly effective underwater adhesive. In addition, the one-celled creature is able to capture and eat ocean organisms many times larger than itself.

Bowser, a professor of biomedical sciences in the University's School of Public Health and a scientist at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center, has spent the last ten years investigating these and other mysteries. In the short term, Bowser says the goal of his National Science Foundation-supported work is to provide basic information on the Foraminifera's habitat, life cycle, reproductive patterns. ecological niche, eating habits, evolutionary history and the role the creature plays in recycling organic nutrients in the oceans. Considering how widespread Foraminifera are in the ocean, Bowser says it is astounding to him that the organisms, and their role in recycling carbon in the ecosystem, haven't been studied more thoroughly. "These protozoa are clearly one of the most dominant life forms on the planet," he says, "and amazingly, we don't know much about them at all."

In the long term, Bowser also believes that important health and medical applications could come out of his basic research. If scientists can unlock the chemical secrets of the underwater adhesive that Foraminifera use to glue sand grains together to make their shells, it may be possible to manufacture that adhesive for use in a variety of watery environments. Bowser suggests that such adhesives would prove highly useful in sutureless surgery, dentistry, pharmacology, nerve repair and in the construction of artificial organs and limbs.

It is September in Albany, a gorgeous Indian summer day, but Sam Bowser is heading to the forbidding white wasteland of Antarctica, where the temperature routinely dips to 30 degrees below zero. After a 36-hour commercial flight with five separate connections, he and his team of researchers land at a U.S.-operated facility at Christchurch, New Zealand. There, Bowser and his team and all their cold-weather gear are deployed to Antarctica aboard a huge Air Force C 141 transport plane.

The plane lands on the ice runway at McMurdo Station, a research outpost built into a desolate volcanic island. McMurdo houses from 200 to more than 1,000 people at a time in dormitory complexes, but Bowser and his crew don't live in the relative comfort of these dorms. Instead, they take helicopters another 60 kilometers into the wilderness to a site known as Explorer's Cove. There, nailed into the Antarctic tundra, is Bowser's campsite, a small gathering of Korean War-era wood and canvas tents that look like giant oil drums lying on their sides.

Why do the University at Albany researchers travel to Antarctica to study this common ocean protozoan'? The reason is simple: Foraminifera live deep on the ocean bottom, which means the organism ordinarily can only be recovered out of muddy sediments that are one to two miles straight down. It would be highly inefficient and expensive to arrange for submersibles to collect the protozoa from these deep ocean sites.

In Antarctica, however, the relatively shallow ice shelf mimics the dark, cold and nutrient-poor conditions of the deep ocean floor in other parts of the world. Bowser and his colleagues have only to dive about 100 feet to "vacuum" up the protozoa from the ooze.

Before they can dive to collect samples of the Foraminifera, however, the scientists must first punch holes through a 15-foot layer of ice. Diving for ocean creatures in Antarctica is tough, grueling and dangerous work. The scientists routinely have to slip out of their clothes and into their diving suits in temperatures that are well below zero. Bowser, energetic with something of a cowboy's attitude toward his adventurous work, says the seawater is so cold that after about a half hour, a diver is usually too numb to work. (His own record underwater is 65 minutes, but more often his dives last 35 to 40 minutes.)

Then, of course, there are the challenges of living in the Antarctic. The scientists are routinely blasted by wicked winds which whip sand across the desert-like tundra at more than 120 miles per hour.

To bathe and to wash dishes, the scientists have to use melted ice water. Most food is freeze-dried. And there is hardly what you would call regular entertainment out there on the tundra. Occasionally, the researchers are whisked back to McMurdo Station by helicopter for a hot shower and a VCR movie. And the scientists do have solar-powered cellular phones and computers to help ease the feeling of isolation out on the unending ice.

Bowser thinks the Antarctic research is well worth every bit of discomfort and trouble. (In fact, he recently applied for a federal research grant that would expand his ocean explorations and his studies of Foraminifera into the waters off the coast of Greenland. Polar bears are his only concern, he says.)

Each trip to the Antarctic lasts two to three months, during which time Bowser collects between 20,000 and 30,000 samples of Foraminifera. (The organism's scientific name is Astrammina rara.) One of the first set of experiments Bowser conducted in his Albany laboratory was aimed at investigating what the organism ate. The scientists assumed that the one-celled Astrammina would eat organisms smaller than itself, so they fed the creature bacteria, algae and fecal matter. Astrammina ate all of the above, as expected. But then, something amazing happened.

In an experiment aimed at seeing what creatures would feed on Astrammina, Bowser introduced into a plate of Astrammina a crustacean that he assumed would be a predator on the smaller one-celled protozoa. Lo and behold, Bowser found that instead of eating the one-celled Astrammina, the crustacean was actually eaten by the smaller organism!

"This was completely unexpected," he says. "It was completely backward, actually reversing the food chain." After further study, Bowser concluded that in order to eat the larger crustacean Astrammina relies on the many long filaments (called pseudopods) that it pokes out of holes in its sand-encased shell. The pseudopods (which at their largest are about the size of a human hair) secrete strong extracellular fibers that, netted together, can trap larger organisms.

"These single-celled creatures, we have decided, act like the spiders of the sea," Bowser says, "sending across the ocean floor a carpet of pseudopods that act like webs." While he has no direct proof, Bowser hypothesizes that Foraminifera probably feed on the young of many larger ocean organisms, including starfish and sea cucumbers, thereby regulating the population size of these larger creatures.

"We believe that this tiny one-celled creature may in fact be a major player in terms of regulating marine life on the planet," Bowser says. "In any case, we believe that we as humans should learn more about these organisms and certainly we should be careful not to dispose of toxins in the ocean which could hurt them."

Probably the most fascinating feature of' Astrammina, though, is the fact that it is able to build its own shell. "How does a single-celled creature pick up a grain of sand and say, 'O.K., this is the right size, shape and color, I think I'll glue it in place here'? How is a single cell able to do this'? For 150 years, nobody has been able to figure it out."

Foraminifera's remarkable shell-building capability was first described by a scientist named W. B. Carpenter in the mid1800s. Later, Carpenter wrote to Charles Darwin to share his observations on this phenomenon. Darwin wrote back to Carpenter, expressing his amazement and saying he, too, was puzzled about how the creature was able to assemble its own shell.

Curiously, in certain species, the youngest Foraminifera build shells that are triangular in shape. As the organism matures, the creature constructs a more and more complex geometrical shape, becoming a square, and then adding more sides to its "house."

In the laboratory, Bowser focuses on finding out how Astrammina secretes the adhesive for its shell. Barnacles and other large sea creatures rely on several glands and physical agents to secrete adhesives. But Foraminifera have none of these features. So Bowser, a cell biologist by training, is now busy looking for "organelle equivalents" that might explain the Foraminifera's ability to produce adhesives.

In the long run, his search for the adhesive may yield some vitally important health and medical applications. "Here we have a simple creature that can secrete a remarkable glue that works underwater," Bowser says. "Maybe, in the future, it will help us solve a whole host of binding problems in watery environments."