Nautilus

The Largest Cells on Earth

Imagine you’re a scientist, sitting in the cold dark belly of a ship above an ocean abyss. Your eyes are fixed on a panel of screens as a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) descends miles below your feet. First the ROV travels through the productive sunlit waters, rich with fish and jellies, but as it sinks the light fades, and all that’s left of the sunlit zone are sinking bodies and waste of the creatures above, raining down so softly, and so densely, scientists call it “marine snow.” Then as the snow fades, you are left with black, in pressures so extreme a Styrofoam coffee cup is crushed to the size of a thimble, and the water is so cold it burns. The seafloor comes into view, and there they are. A garden made of giant cells. 

These single-celled organisms, called xenophyophores, can grow . Xenophyophores growing on the sediment can resemble and that they inhabit the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Xenophyophores “represent a little known element of marine biodiversity,” said Lisa Levin, a marine ecologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. They are also, she added, “very fragile—so vulnerable to human disturbance.” And disturbance is on the horizon. 

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