Field of Science

"Just another ciliate" – importance of sexy descriptions

ResearchBlogging.orgThere are species descriptions, and then there are species descriptions. All too often, you come across a mention of some obscure but ridiculously cool-looking organism, with only a very scant description of what it looks like and what it does. Much less often, you can come across yet-another-new-species (usually of a ciliate), but a particularly nicely described one. Again, those super nice descriptions tend to be of ciliates, largely due to the likes of Wilhelm Foissner and his academic offspring. Descriptive detail can only make species more interesting, and eventually of great potential to be useful for science. (Conversely, many a taxon has been rendered invalid due to poor description)

A sexy description is also a great way to lure readers into noticing your otherwise garden variety new species. Case in point – I see this random IJSEM paper on a couple new marine ciliate Frontonia species – nothing too earth shattering. Being rather compulsive about skimming over any mention of a protist I see in the literature, I click. Being rather lazy and a shallow-minded picture-loving type, I head straight for the figures. Unexpectedly, they dazzle me with sexiness. Desperate for something easy to blog about for the next little while (impending interview, exams, end-of-term chaos, etc), I suddenly find your otherwise-routine new species description quite exciting and blog about it. Here, Frontonia mengi and F.magna get screentime largely thanks to their authors.

Some of us in science are that simple minded. If more people realised that and preyed upon our ilk with shiny pictures, think how much more presentable science as a whole would be!

(That said, no amount of gloss and shine can make your data more or less wrong. But it can, and does, dazzle some of us into overlooking a flaw or three...)

Actually, the above was just a long-winded elaborate excuse to post ciliate porn. Ah, check out the kineties on that ass!

Frontonia mengi. See text. (Fan et al. 2010 IJSEM)

Well, those were mostly just shots of its oral ciliature, but close enough. The root structures of the cilia are highlighted with silver nitrate and carbonate staining, yielding the pretty staining effect. a-c section through the 'mouth'; d shows the "membranelle" around the 'mouth'. e shows the area behind the mouth; arrowhead points to the cytopyge. 'Cytopyge'? Well, a cell's gotta get rid of its waste somehow, and ciliates actually have the cellular analogue of an asshole. Not the socially dysfunctional kind. So yeah, look at that ass. g shows detail of the cortex, h is the overall view of the ventral ciliature. At i, the rows of cilia "stitch together" at the 'anterior suture'. k shows the germline micronucleus (Mi) and somatic macronucleus (Ma).

Now for some delicious DIC:

Frontonia mengi. See text. (Fan et al. 2010 IJSEM)

Crisp DIC intoxicates me. The seductive allure of polarisation-derived faux-3D relief is nearly impossible to resist, especially when you have the fine complex cell of a ciliate. In fact, good DIC is often better than staining, since you don't have to fix (kill) anything. Unfortunately in the case of some larger ciliates, some degree of squishing must be done otherwise the sample is too damn thick for crisp DIC. I think the gist of microscopy can be summarised as the never-ending compromise between care of specimen and care of the optical setup. The most powerful microscopy generally requires total destruction of the specimen, whereas the most natural and undisturbed data can only be attained with simple techniques and weak optics. It's like the Heisenberg principle of microscopy: the more accurately you determine the state of your specimen, the more mangled your specimen gets.

I digress. In the above plate, a-e show general views of several individuals of F.mengi. Remember my rant a couple posts ago about the usefulness of depicting morphotypical (shape type) variation? I hope it is evident here how that can be useful. For example, if only figure a was published, one could be mislead to consider that large vacuole a characteristic feature of this particular ciliate species. The other four images, however, show that to be a feature of just that specimen instead (non-contractile vacuoles, in this case). Furthermore, the authors even invluded a table of morphometric data, measuring the body dimensions and some visible subcellular details (like numbers of kineties and nuclear size) of 23 individuals.

The arrow in 1b points to a contractile vacuole – one could just make out the channel leading to the cell's exterior for expelling its contents. f-g show sections of the mouth, live. h shows detail of the cell surface, the oral apparatus quite visible (as is the cytopyge). i details the cytopharyngeal rods, which are specialised structures this genus of ciliates employs to devour long strands of algae. The characteristically massive ciliate nuclei are visible in j – the arrow points to the macronucleus while the arrowhead points to the micronucleus. No staining necessary, fuck yah.

Frontonia, like many ciliates, is also armed and dangerous. The surface is loaded with extrusomes (k), which can fire leaving a trail, much like the cryptomonad ejectisomes (l). m and n show the contractile vacuole and its exit pore, respectively. The contractile vacuole is necessary for osmotic regulation, especially in freshwater species, and is somewhat analogous in function to our kidneys.

The second species, Frontonia magna, is also well-described. In these specimens, one can make out the algal filament and its constituents – particularly in b, e and f. Like F.menga, it's also loaded with extrusomes (h). I particularly like i, which shows the ciliature of the anterior suture. It's quite hawt.

Frontonia magna. See text. (Fan et al. 2010 IJSEM)

Of course, no description is properly complete (in my opinion) without drawings to accompany the micrographs. Drawings highlight the important features observed by the authors, and are useful in combining information gathered from multiple sections and imaging techniques in a convenient summary. Making an accessible visual summary of a huge pile of microscopy data is no easy task, and is very much an art.

Continuing with F.magna, a summarises the ventral view of a typical individual. b provides a sketch of the sutures, without the distracting detail. c shows the side view, along with the contractile vacuole. d shows the relative sizes and positions of the nuclei. e, again, emphasises variation – it shows the various ways a cell appears after overeating with algal filaments protruding all over the place. It's amazing how hard prey can try to make their predator look like an entirely new freaking domain of life, by stretching it out and colouring it in all sorts of funny ways. A similar phenomenon has been responsible for an entire mistaken genus, Ouramoeba, in the otherwise totally awesome Leidy 1874 work on amoebae. The algal prey is detailed in g, while h details the cilia around the oral apparatus.

Frontonia magna See text. (Fan et al. 2010 IJSEM)

Of course, no species description these days is complete without a healthy phylogeny, and Fan et al. got that covered too. I feel I've stolen more than enough figures already, so I'll just say their Frontonia spp. fit snugly within Peniculia, a group including the famous Paramecium, and the two species are sister to each other. There's also a composition of drawings from multiple sources for other members of this genus, so this paper is a nice current reference for Frontonia, if you ever wake up one morning needing one. Believe me, these cravings may strike at the oddest hour.

Anyway, I just thought these figures really deserve to see the light of day, and not just remain buried away in what will very soon be just the back issues of a microbial systematics journal. While some may look down on routine-seeming research like basic species descriptions for they do not provide a fancy high-level synthesis or anything, but ultimately, these fancy high-level syntheses are built on lower-ranking papers like these, and cannot exceed the quality of their constituents. It is primary 'basic' literature like this that forms the foundation of science; without species descriptions, without "yet another gene/genome/tree/whatever", there will be nothing to base the more glamorous studies on. This is why impact factor is a load of bullshit, and anyone whose hands itch to oppress "low impact" science should be kept the hell away from research funding strategies, for they obviously have no fucking clue how research works in the first place. Grrr. How can anyone vote against a species description as awesome as Fan et al. 2010 above?

Fan, X., Chen, X., Song, W., Al-Rasheid, K., & Warren, A. (2010). Two new marine Frontonia species, F. mengi spec. nov. and F. magna spec. nov. (Protozoa; Ciliophora), with notes on their phylogeny based on SSU rRNA gene sequence data INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SYSTEMATIC AND EVOLUTIONARY MICROBIOLOGY DOI: 10.1099/ijs.0.024794-0


  1. Pretty shiny pictures, indeed! Thanks for pointing these out, there goes another hour of procrastination. :D

  2. This website is great! but i can't seem to find a labelled diagram of Frontonia anywhere. Where could i possibly find one?!?!


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