Washington, Feb 10 (ANI): Two researchers have reported the sighting of a worm in Antarctica that withstands its cold climate by cranking out antifreeze and can even go into suspended animation when it runs out of water.
The researchers, from Brigham Young University, in US, Byron Adams, associate professor of molecular biology, and his Ph.D. student Bishwo Adhikari.
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.
Their latest study used samples Adams gathered during previous trips to the world's most inhospitable continent.
The researchers have done an analysis of the genes of their latest subject, a species of nematode that lives in wetter areas of Antarctica's interior. Until Adhikari sequenced its genes, nobody knew that it had developed an antifreeze system.
"I was really surprised - the antifreeze gene is not like anything in other nematodes," he said.
When its notoriously dry home runs out of water, the worm just dries itself out and goes into suspended animation until liquid water brings it back to life.
When water inside a living thing freezes, ice crystals pierce cell walls and kill them. That's what causes "frostbite."
It turns out that the worm creates a protein that probably prevents the ice from forming sharp crystals or coats them so they don't puncture anything.
The new research also reports the genes that the worm uses to put its life on "pause" when ground water dries up.
According to Adams, this particular species' unique genetic response to its environment means it is likely going to flourish as Antarctica gets wetter, while other nematode species diminish.
That's how this molecular-level research ties back into predicting how the composition and distribution of soil species will change in response to climate change.
"Understanding how the soil functions independent of plants allows us a baseline that we can later add plants to," Adams explained.
"These are rudimentary first steps. The long-term goal is to be able to extend our findings to more complex ecosystems, particularly managed ecosystems," he added. (ANI)