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Life Under Ice: Discovering the skills of Antarctica's tiny ghost creatures

Written By: Kelly Huh

RELENTLESS GALE-FORCE WINDS WHIPPED at BYU biology student Jinna Brim (‘21) and postdoctoral fellow Satyendra Pothula (‘20) as they stepped out of the helicopter. The barren tundra of Antarctica welcomed them.

They had arrived in Antarctica to join BYU biology professor and evolutionary ecologist Byron Adams in an exhilarating yet strenuous journey to study microscopic organisms that hold the genetic secrets to surviving in the world’s harshest conditions. Pothula remembers how small he felt compared to the vast expanse of rocky terrain in the McMurdo Dry Valleys beneath the soaring heights of ice covered mountains. “It feels like a whole different planet,” Brim adds. The two would inhabit the foreign plain for the next seven weeks.

Antarctica’s compelling ecosystem makes it an area of research that is the envy of biologists worldwide. Over the past thirty years, scientists in the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research project (MCM LTER) have kept an extensive record of climate-driven changes in the region’s soils, glaciers, streams, and lakes. Adams joined the project in 2002 and takes a BYU team on an annual trip to the elusive continent.

The BYU MCM LTER team plays an important role in gathering data on the soils and organisms that inhabit the McMurdo Dry Valleys, an area that offers perfect control conditions for research: few species, easy-to-manipulate ecosystems, and untouched populations. “A handful of soil in Utah could contain hundreds of organisms from thirty to forty different species,” Pothula explains. “But in Antarctica, there are just a few species present, so it’s perfect for testing different variables.” Adams agrees: “Mother Nature has done this amazing experiment. All we have to do is show up and collect the data.”

Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Thirty years of research on climate change and evolution in the McMurdo Dry Valleys has shown that glaciers are melting at an accelerated rate, causing closed-basin lake levels to rise as much as ten meters since 1975. This change in water levels affects the various invertebrates that dwell there. For example, Pothula explains that “some animals really like it warmer and wetter, and thus
they are starting to increase in number and expand across the landscape. Others like it freezing cold and dry, so these organisms are starting to decrease in abundance.”

For Pothula and other researchers, the organisms of focus are not the typical penguins or seals you see in David Attenborough documentaries. The Dry Valleys, due to their unique iceless terrain, are home to tiny and obscure nematode worms, tardigrades (also known as water bears), and rotifers. These invertebrates are tiny but mighty; their microscopic size is not an indication of their phenomenal ability to survive the extreme climate. Adams and the BYU team are eager to learn more about these amazing survival skills—so eager, in fact, they traveled to the far reaches of the planet to see the organisms in action.

“These small critters have unique genes that allow them to freeze-dry to a crisp to preserve themselves in extreme conditions,” Adams says. To demonstrate this feat, Adams takes a dried tardigrade or nematode and, with the simple addition of water, reanimates the organism as it comes back to life. The kitschy Sea Monkeys commercialized in 1957 can’t rival these invertebrates, which have been around for thousands of years and boast a shelf life of over twenty years in their dehydrated state. “We don’t know exactly how long these creatures live,” Adams says. “But when you have ice melting and rising water levels, these organisms can incorporate the water back into their tissues, and within a month, eat, find a mate, reproduce, and freeze-dry again.” The possible applications of these organisms’ genetics are endless. In their studies, researchers are asking many questions, including: Do these organisms carry the keys to an endless life? What else could we freeze-dry? Could we extend the shelf life of human blood to save lives? Could these organisms aid in space travel due to their ability to withstand almost deadly conditions? Space travel is a topic with more relevance to this research than you might guess. It turns out that some of these creatures from the Dry Valleys have gone on quite an adventure. When the Israeli space program launched a Lunar Lander to the moon a couple of years ago, it crashed and never returned. The only passengers on board were tardigrades. “It’s fascinating to think that there are possibly some tardigrades, probably still on the moon,” says Marci Shaver-Adams, Antarctica project team member and professor of biology.


As far away as it may seem to most people, Antarctica is not immune to the repercussions of climate change. “Overall, this project has shown us that there are significant effects of the carbon footprint that humans make locally,” Adams says. These effects “in turn, impact this isolated, distant continent.” Adams’s team hopes that people will take climate change seriously and review published research findings to consider how each individual can reduce their carbon footprint. “I think it’s really valuable to stay informed,” Brim says. “This is our home, and we should take care of it. It might not happen in an instant, but if our carbon emissions continue to increase and affect the earth’s temperatures, an island nation could go underwater. If water rises, the level of pollutants in various countries will also rise. ”The Antarctica team’s research provides evidence that climate change truly does affect ecosystems all over the world. And the team wants to share their findings so that all of us will have the opportunity to educate ourselves and make needed changes to help our planet. “Scientific research is about learning, always growing, and getting continually closer and closer to objective truth,” Adams says. “The research not only works to identify errors, but it also challenges us to throw them out and only accept the ideas best supported by evidence.” Adams believes the best ideas are yet to come as students continue to participate in the project and receive indispensable training and opportunities. “The students are the legacy of this project,” he says. “They’re going to do great things."