Apr. 26, 1999 Breaking The Ice, Temple University Biologist Spends Two Months Researching In Antarctica
Like many of his students, Robert W. Sanders, a professor of biology at Temple University, headed south for winter break. However, it was not sun and surf he was seeking, but slush and ice.
Beginning in late December, Sanders and colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Woods Hole, MA, embarked on a two-month trip to Antarctica aboard an ice-breaking research vessel to study microorganisms and retrieve samples to analyze back in their laboratories. The National Science Foundation's "Life in Extreme Environments" (LExEn) program funded the work.
"The data we gathered, plus the DNA samples and the live cultures we brought back, will be the basis of research for several years," says Sanders. "We're using the samples for molecular analysis and comparison, and to study the systematics of protists, which are microscopic algae and protozoa; namely, how they're related and how they evolved, and their ecology--what temperatures they live in, what they eat, how they affect their prey populations."
By studying organisms that live in thermal vents and in areas such as the Arctic and Antarctic, according to Sanders, scientists can gain greater insight into how they survive in such hostile locales.
"This project, like others supported by the LExEn program, may have tie-ins with the recent reports of fossilized microbes on meteors from Mars," he says. "If there were life on other planets, it would have to be adapted to an extreme environment. Our work will contribute to understanding biology at the limits of life."
Sailing aboard the icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer, the researchers collected hundreds of samples from the sediment along the bottom of the ocean, four kilometers below, and from the water. In addition to these shipboard collections, they frequently disembarked to gather samples from the ice, which was thick enough to walk on. They collected ice samples, which they thawed and examined for microorganisms, and started cultures of living protists to bring back to their labs.
The areas with the greatest densities and diversity of protists were pockets of slush and water in the ice with a seep hole to the ocean water below. The scientists scanned the ice for cracks and areas with raised terrain, indicating where floes had crashed together and slush pockets might be.
While most of his time was spent working, Sanders was able to leave the ship, walk around on the ice, and enjoy the "desolate but beautiful" view. Curious penguins would "walk right up to see what you were doing," he says. "You really felt like you were in a unique place in the world that not many people had been to.
"After all that it was lab work on the ship," he continues. "Because we'd be fast in the ice when the other scientists were taking the ice cores, we'd be steady--we could use molecular techniques that are not usually easy to use on a ship, such as pouring gels that need to harden."
Given its isolation and hostile conditions, Antarctica garners a surprising amount of attention from researchers. On the same trip with Sanders, a separate group was examining the ice itself to measure its strength and to determine how much light penetrates it and how much is reflected; others were taking samples to investigate the roles of different microorganisms and viruses in the area's ecology.
Sanders will travel to Woods Hole this summer to work with his fellow researchers on the samples they brought back, and he believes the work will lead to several papers. In addition, he hopes to return to Antarctica someday.
"It's an experience where all you're concerned with is your research, because you can devote all your time to it," Sanders says. "You don't have phone calls or meetings. It's the focus of your day from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. You can accomplish quite a bit of work. That's the biggest difference between researching there and here."
Sanders, a resident of Wyndmoor, PA, has taught at Temple for the last three years. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Virginia, his master's at the University of Maine, and his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia.
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