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“Every fifth breath you take–thank Prochlorococcus for that oxygen,” Chisholm says.

While Chisholm and Olson’s 1988 paper didn’t get much early notice, it did catch the attention of Washington Post science writer Boyce Rensberger, who wrote an item on it that August. A decade later, Rensberger and Chisholm would become MIT colleagues when he was appointed director of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships program. As Rensberger packed up his MIT desk in preparation for retirement at the end of June, he chuckled when he recalled the 20-year-old news brief. “The claim was, it was possibly the most abundant organism on earth,” he says. “Reporters–especially science reporters–love superlatives. The most, the biggest, the farthest, the oldest.”

For the dozens of scientists gathered at Prochlorococcusfest, the 20 years since the discovery have been productive. And the researchers proved that they know how to party. After dinner, ­Shapiro led the crowd in the Prochlorococcus Anniversary Song, encoring with the global-warming ditty “Santa Claus Is Going to Drown.” Emcee Luke Thompson, one of Chisholm’s grad students, tossed out stuffed plush microbes, prompting quibbles about whether it was accurate of the toy company to call Biddulphia “scum.” Many Prochlorococktails–which looked suspiciously like margaritas–were downed.

After 20 years studying Prochlorococcus, Chisholm isn’t flagging. “I really am passionate about our field,” she says. “It’s gotten incredibly exciting.”

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Credit: Erik Zettler

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