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Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Sex Life Of Amoebas

The amoeba (or ameba, depending on which crossword puzzle you are doing) is a shapeless unicellular organism of the genus, Protozoa. According to reference material found in science stacks at the Library of Congress, accessible only by funicular, they are identified by their extreme tininess. They are so tiny that when an amoeba invites a billion of its friends to its 25th birthday party it can't tell whether they showed up or not.

We mustn't assume the amoeba under discussion is 25 human years old. That would be silly. We must understand amoebas (or amoebae, if the crossword is an ancient Roman one) are asexual. They do not go steady or perform stunts to impress each other. They avoid these social and developmental complexities by growing from ages zero to 25 in about a second  --instructive to parents whose adolescent offspring have reached the age of sentiment, a strange period when they get very excited about one another and feel things that scare the hell out of everybody. This is why I encourage my kids to be over 25 years old --over 40 if they can manage it-- and have always done so.

Amoebas do, however, sometimes gather and achieve a form of sociality. These communities are created mainly by a variety called Dictyostelium discoideum when food supplies run low or when they get lonesome. The result is a multi-cellular organism. Each amoeba takes on one of two roles. They either become spores that reproduce, or stalks that lift the spores above the ground to more favorable environments. Here is a microscopic rendering:
Some of these colonies can become quite large. In fact, the one pictured above has lately got big enough to detect without a microscope. If we color in its discreet segments and label it more specifically, it becomes recognizable as Europe.

This was the setting for the Protozoan Reformation in 1517, when Luther published The Ninety-Five Theses. It concluded in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia that ended years of European religious wars. In 1620, many spores blew westward and landed in Massachusetts in time for Thanksgiving.



  1. Geo, there aren't very many people who can make an amoeba sound fascinating. It's a gift.

  2. And later on some of them became United Empire Loyalists and came to Canada because they couldn't afford the boat fare to England and they could walk here. A few of them got eaten by bears on their way over and ended up in the dump in Manitoba.

  3. The amoeba's sex life sounds more exciting than mine...

  4. Well, now, THAT title should get you some interesting hits from the search engines...

    This has to be one my favorite posts so far. I was a biology nerd, and I'm still a crossword puzzle addict, so hey! What's not to like? If you could only slip in a reference to amateur radio and/or chocolate...

  5. I almost spewed my coffee all over the screen. This was a great post! I especially love the Protozoan Reformation bit. :D

  6. I must differ on a quabbly basis. The adolescent amoeba goes through a period of sullen drama and black eyeliner-wearing when they are called the emoba.

  7. Jon-- Thanks, but I've had considerable experience. Many of my relatives are undifferentiated protoplasm and I have found them...well, not fascinating but very interesting.

    Delores-- The dump at Manitoba eh? To the student of enigmae it compares favorably with the Library at Alexandria. I hope someday to study historical mysteries in both.

    Keith-- Coming from an Optimistic Existentialist, your estimate makes me feel a bit better about my own romantic aptitude. Thanks!

    Susan-- Believe me, I tried to include ham radio and chocolate but just fell short. Perhaps if I got called Dude oftener...just a theory.

    Shaharizan-- I was happily raised Protozoan but now suffer Presbyopia from those dimly lit churches.

    Austan-- Hah! and hurrah! Your wily humor has returned.!

  8. I wonder if the Theses were inscribed on something appropriately gelatinous. Would have been a bit of a trick nailing that to a door.

    I can't wait to show this to my own kid, a teenager who was at least 40 years old the day she was born. But she IS a biology nerd. Also, I think she might emotionally identify with the amoeba. (Is "ameba" really an acceptable spelling?)

    I really want someone to draw an emoba now.

  9. Stephanie-- Yes, ameba is an acceptable spelling but I've only encountered it in a few NYT crossword puzzles. Emoba refers to a genre of indie music (my favorite bands are Papercuts and Jimmy Eat World).

  10. Arno-- Biology is sometimes a strange science.

  11. It mighta bin the wine -- there were two glasses, after all -- but I laughed aloud several times reading this.

    Weirdo. :-)


  12. Pearl-- Weirdo? Why you little...Thanks!


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