Freshwater algae on the menu … again

The return of Masterchef to our screens at the same time that Lemanea is at its most abundant in our streams is too much of a coincidence for me.   I have already written about my culinary experiments with the red alga Lemanea (which is eaten in parts of northeast India) and have been wondering for some time how best to use it in British cooking (see “Trout with sorrel, watercress and … algae”).   This year, I followed my instincts, in the wake of my experiments with Welshman’s Caviar after the Green Man festival last summer (see “Gastronomy in the Welsh hills”) and found that it can really enhance the flavour of scrambled eggs.

This is how to do it: collect a few handfuls of young Lemanea from a stream.   It is only common in streams that are relatively unpolluted, though it is tolerant of heavy metal pollution, so it pays to avoid areas where you know there is a history of mining. Wash the filaments in cold water to remove any particles, shake it dry and then spread it out on a plate and leave it at room temperature overnight to dry.   Chop it roughly so that the fragments are about a centimetre in length. Finally, make your scrambled eggs in the usual way, but stir a generous handful of the dried Lemanea filaments into the mixture just as it starts to thicken. Cook whilst stirring for a couple of minutes, then serve on buttered toast.   The algae gives the scrambled eggs a nice, fishy flavour without overwhelming the dish.


Scrambled eggs with Lemanea.

By coincidence, I also found myself eating algae later in the day. I watched a small bowl filled with a tangle of narrow bright green strips trundled past on the conveyor belt whilst I was having a quick pre-cinema meal in YO! Sushi in Newcastle.   This was Kaiso salad, made from seaweed (Undaria, I think) marinated with sesame.   It looked too good to resist. Algae on the menu twice in one day … if I’m not careful, you’ll be thinking I’m obsessed …


Kaiso salad at YO! Sushi


Replaced by a robot?

The two research projects that occupy most of my time at the moment could not be more different except that the motivation in each case is to make applied ecologists more efficient.   The first of these, RAPPER (see “Ecological assessment in the fast lane …”) is old-school natural history, which involves ecologists standing in streams and making observations that can give an insight into stream condition almost straight away (especially if you have a field microscope).   The second is exploring the prospects for using molecular barcodes (see “When a picture is worth a thousand base pairs …”).   Someone still needs to stand in a stream to collect a sample but that is where the similarity ends. I have been collecting samples for molecular barcode analysis for about a year now but I have been sending my samples to the laboratories of the Food and Environment Research Agency at Sand Hutton in York for analysis.

Two pieces of equipment in FERA’s laboratories emphasise the difference between the ecology with which I am familiar and the Brave New World.   The first is the BioRobot that is performs the DNA extractions although it is a disappointment to anyone who expects their robots to resemble R2D2.   The second is the Illumina MiSeq next generation sequencing machine which is the heart of the operation, producing the sequences from the genes that we use as barcodes.   We have been able to deduce the sequence of DNA bases in genes since the 1970s; however, it was a slow and laborious process. When I was doing my PhD, harassed-looking molecular biology students used to stalk the corridors holding the gels that they used to laboriously construct the DNA sequences, base by base.   The Illumina MiSeq produces more sequences in an afternoon than they produced for their entire thesis.   And, with the automation that the BioRobot brings to the process, the economics shift to such an extent that producing these sequences could well be faster and cheaper than paying myself and others to count diatoms under the microscope.


DNA preparation and sequencing equipment at FERA’s laboratories in York. Left: the BioRobot used for DNA extraction; right: the Illumina MiSeq next generation sequencing machine.

But the day after I visited FERA I was back in the River Ehen (see “A winter wonderland in the River Ehen”).   I’ve sent several samples from here off to be sequenced as part of our present project, and am waiting to see what they reveal, particularly as my colleagues and I have struggled to name all of the diatoms using our traditional microscopic approach.   This visit to the Ehen, however, threw up a surprise in the shape of an alga that had appeared at a site where we had not previously seen it.   And here is the challenge: the nature of molecular biology is that you need very specific “primers” – molecules that can target precisely the gene of interest.   It means that molecular biology is very good for finding what you are looking for, but not so good at noticing the unexpected.   That, to me, raises the biggest challenge of the work that we are doing at the moment: how can we couple the undoubted potential of next generation sequencing to the observational skills that field biologists hone over the course of their careers (see “Slow science and streamcraft …”)?

More enormous diatoms

Follow the north-east coast about 40 kilometres south from Seaham (see “Tripping over diatoms”) and you arrive at Saltburn, home to Andrew McKeown’s other diatom sculpture, once again on a clifftop, overlooking the North Sea.   This sculpture, Organism, is of a chain of the marine diatom Amphitetras.   Like Jewels of the Sea, it is made from cast iron, though this time it has a bronze patina. At two metres tall, I suspect that this may be the world’s the largest depiction of a diatom, though you are welcome to prove me wrong.


Andrew McKeown: Organism, 2007, 200 x 120 cm, cast iron with bronze patina, Saltburn

Is this the first microscopic landscape painting?

A few years ago I read Kenneth Clark’s book Landscape into Art, written in 1949 but which is still an excellent introduction to the history of landscape painting.   There was a surprise for me in the final chapter, as Clark speculated about the future of landscape painting. He wrote:

“… the microscope and telescope have so greatly enlarged the range of our vision that the snug, sensible nature which we can see with our own eyes has ceased to satisfy our imaginations. We know that by our new standards of measurement the most extensive landscape is practically the same size as the whole through which the burrowing ant escapes from our sight. We know that every form we perceive is made up of smaller and yet smaller forms, each with a character foreign to our experience.”

The book includes a reproduction of a pastel painting by Henry Underhill, an amateur microscopist, painted in 1885. Clark comments that ‘anyone seeing it in the original is immediately reminded of Klee and early Miro’ before going on to say:

‘“But although these artists have refurnished their repertoire of forms from the laboratories, this does not by any means compensate for the loss of intimacy and love with which it was possible to contemplate the old anthropocentric nature. Love of creation cannot really extend to the microbe, nor to those spaces where the light which reaches our eyes has been travelling to meet us since before the beginning of man.”


Henry Underhill (1885) Marine Plankton. Pastel on paper. Dimensions unknown.

The reproduction is in black and white, but even without colour it is possible to recognise several of the organisms that Underhill has included.   My immediate reaction is that I cannot see many marine planktonic organisms in this picture; most of the algae he has depicted are freshwater benthos, several of which have appeared in my own work. In the top left corner, for example, there is a colony of the diatom Gomphonema whilst the desmid Closterium is visible in the top right quadrant (see “Back to the bog …” for my own attempt to depict Closterium). There are two filaments of cells; that on the left may represent Spirogyra; that on the right is harder to identify. The cell shape suggests the green alga Oedogonium or Bulbochaete but the cells at the top of the image appear to be conjugating, suggesting a representative of the Zygnemetales.   At the bottom of the image there are some long cells which could be the diatom Ulnaria ulna. The animal world is represented by a number of rotifers (see “Rotifers in the River Ehen“).

It is signed at the bottom left hand corner: “H.M.J.U . May 5th 1885”. Clark refers to Underhill as a “fellow worker in Professor Poulton’s laboratory” (possibly Sir Edward Bagnall Poulton FRS, 1856-1943) but there are also web-pages about Henry Michael John Underhill that describe him as a grocer and amateur antiquarian.   Other details about the picture, including size and location remain elusive – the credits in Clark’s book refer only to “private collection, Mansfield, Notts”.

I am intrigued by this picture as it is the earliest that I have seen in which there is an attempt to portray the microscopic world in something approaching a realistic manner. “Realistic” needs several caveats, but here it seems as if Underhill has gone beyond merely recording what he sees through his microscope to reconstructing what the community may have looked like before he scraped it up from the stream bed.   But the title, “marine plankton” for what is clearly a freshwater community (or perhaps, even, a composite built up from elements of several freshwater communities) suggests that this was not Underwood’s primary specialism. I am now extremely curious to find out more about Henry Underhill and, more especially, what other delights may be nestling in his archives.


Kenneth Clark (1949) Landscape Into Art. 148pp. John Murray, London. p140.

An encounter with Enoch Powell …

My silence on the environmental consequences of the forthcoming UK general election is not deliberate.   I have been waiting for the major political parties to make significant policy announcements and whilst the media is full of speculation about stances on the economy, health and immigration, the lack of interest in the environment until now is ominous.   However, whilst I was pondering these matters, I remembered an encounter with a controversial and notoriously Eurosceptic politician twenty years ago.

When I first shook myself free from the fetters of Durham University, I had an aspiration of combining environmental consultancy with freelance journalism and, for a while, wrote a column for the Times Higher Education Supplement in which I interviewed well known people about their earliest forays into the academic world.   One of these trips took me to a residential street on the southern fringes of Belgravia in London to interview Enoch Powell, then in his early 80s but still mentally very sharp. We sat in the first floor study of his house on a sunny afternoon in August 1995 while he told me about his first publication, the translation of some Egyptian papyri from the first and second centuries of the Common Era. My knowledge of the Classics was very limited and it was not a particularly easy interview but, after half an hour or so, I thought I had enough material. It turned out to be an easy interview to transcribe as Powell spoke in grammatically almost-perfect sentences and paragraphs.  You can find the article online by clicking here although I am afraid that it is behind News International’s paywall.

As he showed me out, he asked me where I was going next.   I mentioned that I was heading to Reading to a meeting with the Environment Agency, and then explained that I was working with them to implement a new European Union Directive (the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive).   His facial muscles tightened and his eyes glowered behind his penetrating stare as he barked “what business is it of theirs if we poison our rivers?”

Tripping over diatoms …

This post takes me about 12 kilometres further north from the Durham coastal location that I wrote about in County Durham’s Tropical Seashore.   I am in Seaham, on the top of cliffs made of the same Permian limestone that I found at Blackhall.   Just beyond the Saxon church visible in some of the pictures is Seaham Hall Hotel, which has a very tenuous link with Lord Byron (he married the owner’s daughter; the marriage only lasted about a year before he ran off with his half-sister) and, more importantly, is now home to County Durham’s only Michelin-starred restaurant.

But nineteenth century literary scandal and gastronomy are not the reasons for my visit today.   I have come to see an art installation called “Jewels of the Sea”, by local artist Andrew McKeown, which consists of over thirty cast-iron sculptures of diatoms set in a park between a housing estate and the clifftops.   The work was commissioned as part of the Turning the Tide project, which ran through the late 1990s to restore the Durham coastline after the closure of the coastal coal mines.   The housing estate is built on the site of the former Vane Tempest mine and the sculptures represent new life emerging as the local environment recovered from the mining.


“Jewels of the Sea”: Andrew McKeown’s sculptures at East Shore Village, Seaham.   Left: Lyrella (foreground) and Helisira (background); right: Diploneis.

Andrew McKeown told me that he had found inspiration for these sculptures in Frank Round, Dick Crawford and David Mann’s book Diatoms: Biology and Morphology of the Genera, which contains scanning electron micrographs of most of the genera that were recognised at the time.   I could not track down either Helisira or Huckovia either in this book or via internet searches; however, the inspiration for the other genera is clear from the book.   The original symbolism of “new life” is very appropriate to anyone who remembers the Durham coast in the years when the pits were still active. However, to me, the idea of portraying microscopic algae on a scale that you can trip over is a powerful metaphor for the hidden influence that these organisms have over all of our lives.


More “Jewels of the Sea”, Andrew McKeown’s sculptures at East Shore Village, Seaham.   Left: Asteromphallus (foreground); right: Huckovia.


Round, F.E., Crawford, R.M. & Mann, D.G. (1990). The Diatoms: Biology and Morphology of the Genera.   Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Seaham is not the only County Durham town to celebrate a tenuous association with a 19th century poet.   Elizabeth Barrett Browning was born in the next village to mine in 1806 although she only lived there for the first two or three years of her life.   Her most famous poem, Sonnet 43 (“How do I love thee, let me count the ways …”), is celebrated in the name of a microbrewery in Coxhoe that I can thoroughly recommend.

Though it only lasted about a year, Byron’s marriage produced one child, better known by her married name, Ada Lovelace, who was a mathematician who worked with Charles Babbage and has been described as the world’s first computer programmer.