How Do I Live Without You?
Nature

How Do I Live Without You?

The Surprising Connections Between Species
Mikołaj Golachowski
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time 13 minutes

Wolves help forests grow, old ladies save bumblebees, and whales increase the fish population despite eating them. The connections between various species are subtle and often surprising. Even humans, at some point during evolution, merged with certain bacteria and viruses that are intimately assimilated with our bodies today.

Ozyorsk is a city in Chelyabinsk Oblast in Russia, where plutonium factories used to operate. Radioactive particles are still present in the water and earth to this day. The locals often complained about chronic pain, tiredness and problems with their circulation, digestion and immune system. However, doctors failed to find any explicit links between the ailments and radiation. They didn’t detect any cancerous changes typically caused by radioactivity. And because the symptoms didn’t fit the diagnostic criteria, patients were sent away feeling neglected and betrayed.

Professor Kate Brown, whose research focuses on areas affected by radioactivity, spoke at a conference in Santa Cruz, where she told the story of the strange illness affecting the residents of Ozyorsk. The lecture was attended by microbiologist Margaret McFall-Ngai, who suddenly recognized all of the symptoms described by Brown. Each and every one of those indicators had appeared previously in her own research. The scientists joined forces and managed to solve the mystery together. It turned out that although the radiation dosage was too low to cause cancerous tumours in people, it was high enough to inflict mutations in the patients’ intestinal bacteria. The bacteria were ill, which caused the people – their hosts – to suffer.

This story is a beautiful example of cooperation between researchers from different areas of science, but also a brilliant illustration of cross-species symbiotic relations. Can you imagine a bond closer than suffering from another creature’s sickness?

The plant partnership

Back at school when we learned about symbios

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The Future of the Barents Sea
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The Barents Sea is my route to work. I sail through it on a ship filled with tourists when, as a guide, I travel north to show people the wild beauty of Spitsbergen, Franz Josef Land, and the North Pole itself.

Although it’s now merely a shadow of its former glory, the Barents Sea is still full of life. A few years back, I saw my first blue whale here. What a sight it was! Whenever a blow (absurdly called ‘a fountain’ in Polish) is spotted, passengers get excited, especially if it is a few metres high. Whales blow air forcefully, as if they are sneezing. Their breath contains compressed air, some steam, a bit of water from the blowhole, and a lot of snot.

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