The Cell from Hell

(This column was first published in the November 9, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Imagine the following science fiction movie plot.

    Opening scene: The camera pans across a tidal marsh and dips underwater to focus on a fish gliding through the water. Healthy and active at first, the fish suddenly develops large sores, becomes sluggish and finally rises to the surface belly up. The camera ascends to show the estuary now strewn with hundreds of similar dead fish.

    Enter the marine biologist heroine -- played by, say, Jody Foster. Noticing the fish kill from her boat, she collects several pails of the water. Later back at her lab, she pours the water into an aquarium.

    Now she carefully mounts a drop of the water on a microscope slide, but we look with her at the resulting image -- a blank. The heroine has her assistant (Denzel Washington?) look too and tells him, "Whatever it was, we didn't catch it. It's gone."

    But the camera focuses in on the tank, aerator bubbling. We know that the villain is hiding in there somewhere.

    The scientists soon know it too. They place a healthy fish in the tank. It swims normally but the next morning the assistant finds it dead. He examines another water drop under the microscope and this time it swarms with active cells that look like tiny jellyfish.

    The heroine arrives. She sees the dead fish and her assistant tells her about the slide. When she sees the little jellyfish, she rushes down the hall to tell her mentor, a senior researcher whom she obviously holds in high regard. They return to the lab and the elderly curmudgeon (a John Houseman type?) looks through the microscope. Frowning, he rises from the scope to ask, "Is this a joke?" The cells have disappeared.

    Another complication: the assistant begins to act abnormally. His personality disintegrates, he breaks things in the lab and finally he must be sent home. The heroine's health also declines. Meanwhile the tank gurgles on.

    The young woman reports these findings to other scientists but they are skeptical. She tries to get support for further studies but now faces governmental apathy and industrial opposition. Tourism representatives are concerned that knowledge of this phenomenon will make sport fishing unattractive; polluters are afraid that they will be found out and blamed.

    You know the rest of the plot. Her evidence accumulates. Little people like local anglers who also find dead fish and families whose children develop strange maladies come forward at meetings to support her. Funding finally comes through and the cell is identified and suppressed. Or is it? The film closes with another view of that eerily bubbling tank. Clearly a sequel will follow.

    Standard science fiction nonsense? Unfortunately, no. The story is true. Rodney Baker tells it in much greater -- and more terrifying -- detail in And the Waters Turned to Blood: The Ultimate Biological Threat. The Jody Foster role is played in real life by Dr. JoAnn Burkholder, Professor of Aquatic Botany and Marine Sciences at North Carolina State University. And the real central character, the lurking eminence, is Pfiesteria piscicada, a cell called a dinoflagellate that is able not only to hide but also to change form seemingly at will and that has been implicated in serious human health problems as well as fish kills. With good reason, those who are familiar with Pfiesteria call it "the cell from hell."

    This coming Sunday, November 15th, Professor Burkholder will visit Buffalo to deliver a 3:00 p.m. Hayes lecture, "Impacts of 'The Cell from Hell' and Other Algal Blooms" at the Buffalo Museum of Science.

    Here is an opportunity to meet a heroine of real science with a story as scary as science fiction.


Note: And the Waters Turned to Blood was published by Simon & Schuster in 1997.