Craig Cary, a friend of the MO BIO Laboratories’ family came by to say hello and also updated us on his work.
Craig works on soils from Antarctica in a region called the Dry Valleys in Victoria Land. Talk about extreme! Imagine glaciers, extremely cold temperatures, very dry air, rocky salty soils, lack of vegetation, “Kadabatic” winds derived from the mountains, 24 hours of sunlight during “summer”, and to top it off mummified seals! This place has been described as one of the most extreme environments on the planet, and is used as a model ecosystem to better understand the conditions on Mars, a planet akin to this “freeze dried environment”.
In 1989, an important treaty called the Montreal Protocol was put into effect banning the use of CFC’s in any commercial products due to its deleterious effects on our ozone layer. It turns out it this treaty has made a profound effect on positively regenerating the ozone layer which is concentrated in the upper atmosphere of the poles. This comes with concern about how this will effect the environment in Antarctica, ozone traps heat including the climate changing CO2 we are pumping in to it. Will Antarctica continue to warm? We know that the Antarctic Peninsula, a fingerlike projection sticking up towards South America, is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet. What will happen with the rest of the continent, will it warm too? This is what Craig wants to know. He states that 70% of the fresh water on planet is stored in the glaciers. I think to myself, maybe I shouldn’t be so eager to live on the coast, stick to the hills!
Prior to the 1970s, the thought was there was no life at all in the Dry Valleys. Here is where Craig and his audacious team take the stage. They are studying changes using the biology of this environment as their proxy. The paradigms so far that dispute prior knowledge about this “thought to be lifeless environment” are that the diversity of the microbes is way higher than previously thought, similar to your backyard as a matter of fact! Not only that, but each valley has it’s own biological clock if you will. There are microniche environments on small geographic scales where turnover rates can be as short as 2 years. The main drive behind Cary’s group is to figure out what determines and can predict distribution of biota in the Dry Valleys and beyond.
Their partners in crime for this study are mosses, lichens, endoliths (bacteria living in rocks), springtails, mites, nematodes, rotifers, and of course microorganisms. Each specialized research group will monitor changes in these communities and generate a predictive model that will help better understand not only this environment but other environments as well. Springtails, for example, have two genetic morphs, one adapted to cold and one adapted to heat. By setting up “springtail traps” you can count the numbers of each morph to monitor temperature changes in the field. Sounds like Flintstone material to me “Hey Freddie, can you please set out the springtail thermometer for me, I need to know if we need more clothing for Pebbles!”
Generating this kind of data does not go without struggle and is not cheap. To get to their base camp near Spaulding Pond in the Taylor Valley, the team of twenty Kiwis and Americans start off on a C130 military aircraft from New Zealand to McMurdo Station and are then airlifted via helicopter where they set up camp including a bucket as their bathroom. The locations they sampled from day to day over 4 weeks at times required 30-40 kms of hiking in sub zero temperatures. Their goal of collecting samples was organized according to a method where they overlaid tiles determined using satellite images on to a map and determined which spots are the best to sample. What’s even more interesting, is that they have some really high tech equipment to help facilitate. In one study to understand lichen primary production, they have a fiber optic cable that will send a pulse of light to the edge of a lichen and wait to receive a signal back that informs them about the physiological state of the lichen. This information along with temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure are sent via a satellite phone real time! They are also working with drones that will “autopilot” aerial surveys and provide low level mapping of the area, totally teched out! When the field season was over, they left nothing behind literally returning rocks to their original location. What they brought home is some hefty “no shower for 4 weeks” stench but also a plethora of data and samples that could help us change the world we live in today!
Thanks Craig for the invigorating talk! Need any volunteers?
Craig Cary uses MO BIO’s nucleic acid extraction kits to extract his samples.