Home-made plankton research under the Covid-19 scenario

Claudia Traboni, MixITiN ESR9, talks about the new “normal”

May 2020

Dear readers, we all know how it feels to stay home for weeks or even months during these hard times due to the outbreak of the Covid-19. Nevertheless, for those who have had the chance to work from home there are some funny anecdotes. In this blog, I would like to share some of the situations I have gone through over the last month (that I would not even have imagined to be possible).

Domestic unicellular friends

Before all this chaos started, I used to grow my plankton samples in the laboratory, refreshing their medium or feeding them every now and then. Now that I am in self-isolation, I am thus unable to feed my pIankton. But I could not just let them starve on their own. I set out to find a way to save my precious mixoplankton. So, before starting the quarantine period, I prepared several sterile medium-containing flasks and kept them in the refrigerator. I selected all the cultures I wanted to take care of and took them home along with their prey. Once every 15 days I am now refreshing the dense cultures into new dilute fresh medium and feeding them. I expose them to the natural light of my house just like old planktonologists used to do back in the days. In the pictures below you see the small unicellular garden I have made: four family generations of the mixoplankters Karlodinium armiger and Karlodinium veneficum that I feed with Rhodomonas salina and they are doing fantastically! I am seriously growing feelings towards them as if they are my domestic pets.

“Smart working” is actually working!

Pre-COVID-19 I was involved in a very big experiment in which I had to monitor the growth of protists (mixoplankton and its prey) and predators (copepods) over 20 days. I remember how hard it was to prepare all the materials and to keep everything under control during those three weeks. Big tanks, endless filters and vials, different copepod stages to look at, two prey species to analyse and hundreds of samples to count. Now here we are, at home! How would I be able to keep analysing my samples when self-isolating and not lose my productivity? Well, it was rather easy! I put all the samples in a box and grabbed a microscope we had at the laboratory. Et voilá! I brought everything home and literally established a micro-laboratory in my own living room. I also collected all the necessary tools that I would need to process the samples. In an environmentally-friendly way I am putting the experimental wastes in a bottle temporarily so that I can eventually dispose them according to the protocols at proper facilities.

Remote spreading of the mixoplankton paradigm

I have been doing science dissemination throughout my MixITiN Project. In fact, as you may have read in my blog post last year, I am particularly passionate about drawing. And, plankton are always special subjects in my artworks. So a big question for me was – how would I still be able to involve people in plankton research without leaving my apartment? And, how would I be able to engage people with something that is invisible to the naked eye without a real microscope? Well, fortunately, modern social network platforms have allowed me to set up a remote connection with the children of a primary school here in Barcelona, upon request from the science dissemination group based at my host institute. In line with this educational initiative, I was delighted to involve children in plankton stories making use of art. I have shown and told them about the diversity in plankton and the different roles of the plankton by projecting my drawings onto their screens. I have also made a short videoclip on planktonic food webs. I discussed this with the school children. They were absolutely amazed by the fantastic shapes and clever strategies of the unicellular mixoplankton; they were also interested in the curious world of phyto- and zooplankton. It was a very exciting moment when one of the children said: “Claudia, thank you very much for teaching us a lot of new stuff on plankton today”. The teachers were also very kind: “We are very grateful and your drawings are beautiful”. That meant a lot to me, and it would not have happened in an ordinary day!