A light micrograph of an adult Antarctic nematode worm Plectus murrayi in its hydrated, ecologically active state. The worm was found in soil samples collected by researchers working in Antarctica under the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Following their study, the LTER researchers published a report in which they described a nematode worm they found that could withstand its cold Antarctic climate by creating a sort of antifreeze.
When water inside a living thing freezes, ice crystals pierce cell membranes and kill them (which causes frostbite). But the nematode creates a protein that probably prevents the ice from forming sharp crystals or coats them so they don't puncture anything. Identifying the genes the worm uses to kick in its antifreeze system could have potential in future research such as engineering frost-resistant crops.
The researchers also reported that when its environment runs dry, the nematode dries itself out and goes into suspended animation until liquid water brings it back to life. Adams says this unique genetic response to its environment indicates the nematode will likely flourish as Antarctica gets wetter due to climate change, while other nematode species diminish.
The samples collected and data generated for this research were done under the auspices of the McMurdo Dry Valleys LTER (under NSF grant OPP 98-10219) and administered under NSF's Office of Polar Programs. Adhikari received funding from NSF.
To read more about this study, see the BYU news release BYU study: How an Antarctic worm makes antifreeze and what that has to do with climate change.
(Date of Image: 2009)
Credit: Bishwo Adhikari, Department of Biology, Brigham Young University