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Chapter 1 : Keepers of the Biosphere

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Abstract:

The remarkable balance of life on our planet is maintained through the activities of its tiniest inhabitants. The inhabitants are microbes—bacteria, fungi, protozoa, algae, and viruses. They keep materials cycling through the biosphere, making resources available for all living things. From the rainforests to the open oceans to the deep sea trenches, microbes are the glue that holds our web of life together. We generate immense quantities of waste; most is not easily or quickly returned for use. Photosynthetic microbes contribute as much as half of the total oxygen that we breathe. Converting carbon into sugar is only one stop on the carbon cycle, and microbes play many other roles in keeping this cycle running. The principal inorganic source for nitrogen is the atmosphere. In fact, over 99.9% of the nitrogen in our biosphere that is not tied up in rock or dissolved in water exists in the form of nitrogen gas (N) in the atmosphere. We build factories that produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer by using chemical processes to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is one of the mainstays of farming and gardening, allowing us to increase the yield of some of our most important agricultural products, such as corn. Legumes—like peas, beans, alfalfa, and clover—along with their nitrogen-fixing microbes represent one of the most important ways that nitrogen can be restored to land under intensive cultivation. A teaspoon of seawater contains literally millions of microbes, each playing its part in keeping our biosphere in balance.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1

Key Concept Ranking

Hydrogen Sulfide
0.7076923
Carbon Dioxide
0.6381662
Viruses
0.53627855
Chemicals
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0.7076923
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Figure 1

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 2

While most of the materials associated with life are constantly moving through cycles of reuse, the by-products of “civilization” are accumulating in massive quantities.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 3

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 4

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 5

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 6

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 7

Kelp, a kind of seaweed composed of communities of brown and red algae, makes up dense forests in the oceans. Algae and cyanobacteria use the sun's energy to make most of their substance from carbon dioxide.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 8

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 9

The termite's impressive capacity to get its carbon and energy from wood depends on the microbes living within it breaking down the cellulose in the wood. This is one way in which living things make use of the energy stored during photosynthesis.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 10

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 11

The death and decay of a tree mean life to the bacteria and fungi that specialize in decomposing its substance.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 12

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 13

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 14

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 15

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 16

A symbiotic trade-off: plants get a usable form of nitrogen, microbes get food.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 17

The pea root “calls” the microbes with a chemical message.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 18

The rhizobia migrate toward the root and release their own chemical message.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 19

The root surrounds and engulfs the eager bacteria . . .

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 20

. . . who set up housekeeping inside the root's cells.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 21

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 22

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 23

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 24

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 25

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 26

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 27

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 28

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 29

Dan Jantzen: “. . . When somebody says web of life we think two-dimensional—spider web . . . —but it's really a three-dimensional structure . . . the microbes all intertwined . . . think of them more as glue . . . sort of sticky everywhere.”

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 30

Winny Halwachs: “I knew that [microbes] were out there but the sense that they had really structured the world around us, that they are the engineers that made life livable on planet earth and that they are the engineers that maintain conditions within the range that we can survive—that has come to me much, much more recently.”

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 31

Ignacio Chapella of the University of California: “I think the average person should . . . be interested in microbes because it's always good to know who is running your world . . .”

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 32

In the rainforest, materials descend from the canopy, are rapidly decomposed, and are swept back up in new growth. In contrast to temperate forests, the topsoil is little enriched because the copious daily rains wash any remaining nutrients away.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 33

The fungus mycorrhizae wrap themselves around tree roots, essentially taking over the root's function, trapping nutrients for use by both plant and fungus.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 34

Mushrooms are communities of fungal cells specialized in the production of spores. They participate in the process that returns essential nutrients to drive life's cycles.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 35

The fungus's long chains of connected cells—hyphae—act as conveyor belts for nutrients throughout the forest floor.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 36

Leaf-cutter ants, prodigious weight-lifters, slice off chunks of leaves . . .

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 37

. . . and transport them to their underground nests, where the leaves are food for a fungus, and the fungus is food for the ants.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 38

The leaf-cutter ants carry a special kind of bacteria, , on a patch on their chests. The bacteria, in exchange for this safe haven, produce an antibiotic that kills a mold that attacks the fungus that feeds the ants.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 39

Scientists suspect that caterpillars harbor microbes that help them digest their food just as microbes help cows digest theirs.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 40

Phytoplankton, microbes inhabiting the upper, warmer, illuminated layers of the oceans, are the primary converters of sunlight to living substance in these watery expanses.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 41

Giovannoni and his team collect samples in pursuit of the elusive SAR 11 in the Sargasso Sea off the coast of Bermuda.

Steve Giovannoni, on the discovery of SAR 11: “My feeling was like being the first person to land on the moon.”

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 42

“Clearly there was something special about this organism that allowed it to move in and occupy the biggest environment on the planet—the ocean's surface—where it then became the dominant organism.”

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 43

This fuzzy dot of light, magnified by thousand of times, was the first confirmed sighting of SAR 11.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 44a

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 44b

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 45

Many familiar inhabitants of the reef community and their unique microbial partners exchange materials that each needs to thrive.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 46

Corals “bleach” (appear white) when they expel the algae that normally live inside them and provide them with most of their food. This forced separation occurs primarily as a result of rising tropical sea temperatures.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 47

The disappearance of green algae from its coral host bodes ill for the reef.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 48a

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 48b

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 48c

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 48d

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 49

The lights of the submersible explorer ALVIN illuminate towering masses of crystallized minerals emanating from volcanoes two miles below the ocean's surface.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 50

Deep sea volcanoes support a thriving ecosystem of bizarre life forms, including ghostly crabs and dense mats of microbes.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 51

Movement of the earth's crust on the ocean's floor, as in an earthquake, creates cracks. Water flows in . . .

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 52

. . . heats up, then spews forth laden with minerals.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 53

Microbes extract energy from the minerals, using it to convert carbon dioxide into their cell structure. They are, in turn, consumed by larger creatures.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 54

In this sunless world, giant tube worms and other creatures depend on microbes to extract energy from the mineral-laden waters and convert it to a usable form for all.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 55

The worm harvests hydrogen sulfide, oxygen, and carbon dioxide from the sea and affords the bacteria a comfortable home; the bacteria convert the simple chemicals to food for themselves and their worm host.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 56

The ran aground in the pristine waters of Prince William Sound, spilling millions of gallons of oil into the bay and devastating the environment.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 57

The death of birds and animals caught the attention of the world.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 58

Spraying the oily shores with nitrogen to encourage the growth of petroleum-eating microbes turned out to be more efficient than the use of solvents in cleaning up the oily mess.

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 59

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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Figure 60

Citation: Needham C, Hoagland M, McPherson K, Dodson B. 2000. Keepers of the Biosphere, p 1-44. In Intimate Strangers. ASM Press, Washington, DC. doi: 10.1128/9781555818159.ch1
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