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Return of the seabed slime 'creature'

A little over a century ago, some of the greatest 19th-century life scientists talked excitedly about a primitive ''living'' slime that covered parts of the North Atlantic sea floor. How red their faces were when it turned out to be contamination caused by the alcohol used to preserve specimens.

However, their embarrassment was premature. Dr. A.L. Rice of Britain's Institute of Oceanographic Sciences says there appears to be something to the slime theory, after all. It may contain organic remains, although it is by no means a living creature.

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The story begins in 1857 with samples of sea-bottom sediments collected by the steamship Cyclops. She was exploring the way for the first (unfortunately unsuccessful) transatlantic telegraph cable. The samples were given to British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. Years later, in 1968, he told a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BA), he had found a transparent, gelatinous material, surrounding small, circular plates - the remains of algae.

Huxley thought he had found evidence of a living protoplasmic slime. He called the slime 'creature' Bathybius haeckelii after the German biologist Ernst Haeckel. It was supposed to cover much of the sea floor, providing food for more highly organized animals. Sir Charles Wyville Thomson - commander of the Challenger on the first world-girdling oceanographic expedition - said that Bathybius seemed ''capable of a certain amount of movement, and there can be no doubt that it manifests the phenomena of a very simple form of life.''

Alas, Bathybius was found to be sulphate of lime, precipitated when alcohol mixed with sea water. Huxley withdrew his claim at a later BA session. But perhaps he should have held his peace.

Chemists in this century have found amino acids, protein-like substances, and other organic material in that calcium sulphate. Now Rice reports the existence of what he calls a seasonal sea-bottom ''fluff'' that is reminiscent of Bathybius, although not alive.

It has been photographed along the continental slope off southwestern Ireland. The area is clear in winter months. But in summer at depths of 2,000 meters and below, about a centimeter of Rice's ''fluff'' covers the sediment.

The ''fluff'' appears to be a gelatinous mass with bits of dead algae that has settled from surface waters. Rice suggests that it is produced when algae blooms in the spring. On the bottom, it may feed some animals, such as brittlestars, in true Bathybius fashion. Rice notes that their reproductive cycle varies with the seasons and may be timed to take advantage of the ''fluff.''

No one can know whether or not this was what Huxley had taken to be a protoplasmic residue. But it is reasonable to think that he may well have been seeing more than an inorganic precipitate.

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Huxley remarked sadly that ''Bathybius has not fulfilled the promise of its youth.'' He would have done better to have waited for research to define that promise more clearly.

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