Two Brigham Young University researchers who just returned from Antarctica are reporting a hardy worm that withstands its cold climate by cranking out antifreeze. And when its notoriously dry home runs out of water, it just dries itself out and goes into suspended animation until liquid water brings it back to life.
Identifying the genes the worm uses to kick in its antifreeze system can be useful information – similar genes found in other Antarctic organisms are currently being used to engineer frost-resistant crops.
But BYU’s Byron Adams, associate professor of molecular biology, and his Ph.D. student Bishwo Adhikari, are carrying on their love affair with microscopic nematode worms for a different reason.
They spent Christmas near the South Pole to help determine how the fate of a half-millimeter worm can actually impact an entire ecosystem, and how that information can serve as an important baseline for understanding climate change’s impact on more complex systems, such as a farmer’s field in the United States.
Their latest study, published February 9 in the journal BMC Genomics, used samples Adams gathered during previous trips to the world’s most inhospitable continent. He’s lived at McMurdo Station seven times and hitched helicopter rides to gather soil from Antarctica’s freezing, bone-dry valleys, where only a handful of microscopic animals can survive. The ones that do make for a convenient laboratory for observing how minor changes in the environment can have a big impact on an ecosystem.