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Student Profile

Wormherders on Ice

by Adler R. Dillman

Antarctica, the vast icy desert that remains virtually untouched by humans, is the elusive seventh and least-visited continent on the face of the earth. It is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth. Antarctica, whose existence was only hypothesized until finally sighted in 1820–21, now houses over forty research stations run by some seventeen countries and is the focus of the largest multinational research effort in history.1

Imagine my surprise and delight at being invited to join a soil ecology team making the trip to Antarctica during the 2006 austral summer! I had no idea what to expect or what to pack. My trip to the bottom of the world was an experience I will never forget. I had been working for Dr. Byron Adams for nearly three years when the invitation came. Adams has been part of the Long-Term Ecological Research program (LTER) in Antarctica for five years and had made annual trips to the South Pole during that time. At BYU, my fellow labsters and I take pleasure in saying that we work in the Nematode Evolution Lab, and though we all entered the lab with little or no knowledge about nematodes, we have learned much of their ecological significance.

Getting their extreme cold weather gear from the Clothing Distribution Center.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms that seem to occupy virtually every habitat on earth. They fill numerous ecological niches from plant and animal parasites to free living. Plant-parasitic nematodes are of great agricultural significance, because they are responsible for the loss of an estimated 12.3 percent of the world’s annual crop yield, which makes them the most damaging agricultural pest in the world.2 Nematodes also play a very important role in the growing field of genomics and molecular systematics.

C. elegans, the most widely known nematode, was the first multicellular animal to have its genome sequenced. Insect parasitic nematodes are being used as an organic pesticide.

Truly, nematodes are a model organism in biology and are one of the creatures we know the most about. Studying nematodes at the bottom of the world was a welcome surprise, and it helped open my eyes to the importance of Antarctic research.

There are a number of factors that make Antarctica an appealing place to do science: low biodiversity, no indigenous humans, and the presence of novel survival mechanisms due to the extreme environmental conditions, to name just a few. Because there is no indigenous human population, resource exploitation has been negligible, Antarctica is a place where scientists can evaluate the affects of global climate change on biodiversity in the absence of human-induced local effects.

The military C-17 that took Dillman and the others from Christchurch to Antarctica.

The ice-free landmass makes up less than 0.5 percent of the continent, but there is exposed soil in the Dry Valleys. The effect that a degree change can have is enormous because of the release of liquid water versus the accumulation of ice. One-degree difference for a month or a few days can mean a large increase in the amount of free liquid water available in the soil.

Antarctica is particularly sensitive to climate change because of its low biodiversity and lack of redundancy in the role that organisms play in the ecosystem. If one species goes extinct because of an increase in temperature or available water, there might not be another species in the ecosystem to fill the lost niche, whereas in temperate areas with abundant biodiversity, there is a high level of ecological redundancy. The amount of UV light that penetrates the earth’s atmosphere is higher in Antarctica than anywhere else in the world, which also increases the value of Antarctica as a place to conduct scientific research, especially for geologists, meteorologists, and physicists.

Dillman in front of the Hagglund, a specialized Antarctic personnel transporter.

I found out firsthand that Antarctica is a harsh continent, and it is this harshness that leads to the development of novel survival mechanisms in the wildlife. Because it is so cold and dry, the nematodes have only a couple of months out of the year to complete their life cycle, while the rest of the year they are essentially freeze-dried.

Environmental cues prompt the nematodes to go through a process called anhydrobiosis, where they push the water from their cells and dry out for the long winter, until it warms up and moisture is again available in the soil. Basically, these worms freeze-dry themselves for ten months and then rehydrate and come back to life—properties that provide exciting new research opportunities.

Antarctica is a unique place to study soil ecology because of the relative simplicity of the soil community. In temperate zones or desert climates, the soil community is so complex and diverse that it is difficult to assess the contributions of individual species and how they interact with the rest of the soil community. The above-below ground interactions in most ecosystems are complicated by the presence and influence of plants. The McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica provide an environment that has low biodiversity and no plants, making it possible to tease apart the contributions of individual organisms in the soil community and to understand the interactions that take place.3, 4 This was the main focus of our research team, which is affectionately known in Antarctica as “The Wormherders.”

Dillman doing DNA extractions on some of the individual nematodes they collected for the purpose of establishing the relatedness of the soil invertebrates in the valleys.

Our research was based out of McMurdo Station, the largest base in Antarctica. To get there, we first flew to Christchurch on the southern island of New Zealand, where the United States Antarctic Program is headquartered. There they outfitted us with special extreme-cold-weather gear, or ECW. The gear was amazing, and when I was all suited up, I felt like I was impervious to the weather. From New Zealand, we took a C-17 military plane, specially outfitted to carry the passengers and various supplies needed at McMurdo.

The plane landed on the ice not too far from the base, where a large monster-truck transport bus called Ivan the Terrabus awaited us. I remember how excited I was when the door to the plane opened, and I got my first glimpse of Antarctica. The air was so cold and crisp yet tangibly clean, I was reminded of how preserved and virtually untouched this place is. Stepping out onto the ice was memorable for me as the pristine fields of white ice and snow were so bright and beautiful. Sunglasses are required at all times, and I was glad to be wearing them because it was so bright.

During the austral summer, it is light twenty-four hours a day, and it isn’t just light, the sun is high in the sky, which makes it always feel like mid-day. Adjusting to the constant light was difficult, and I missed the darkness and the beauty of the nighttime sky.

A nematode sampling site in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, equipped with temperature alteration chambers. Other sampling sites include areas where they control moisture and/or carbon.

McMurdo, with a feel and culture all its own, was my home for five weeks. During the summer months, up to 1,000 people are there, ranging from dishwashers, firefighters, and cooks to helicopter pilots, mountaineers, and scientists. The base itself is more like a small town with just over 100 buildings. There are several roads that go through the town, which includes prefabricated dormitories, a large cafeteria, a state-of-the-art laboratory building, and much more. Because most of those who work there are restricted to the base and entertainment is limited, there is a great sense of culture and community as individuals share and use their talents to benefit others. Twice a week there were science lectures given by leading experts currently at the base, there were all sorts of dance, language, and yoga classes available. I participated in Scott’s hut race, an 8k race around the roads of McMurdo. I greatly appreciated the sense of cooperation I felt—unlike anywhere I’ve ever lived. Everyone pitched in and helped with whatever needed to get done; I can recall a particular night, when one of the world’s foremost geochemists gave a lecture on his research in Antarctica, and the next night he volunteered to help in the cafeteria.

Most of my time was spent in the laboratory working with soil samples: we would extract the nematodes from the soil and evaluate how many of which kinds there were, and then we would isolate individual nematodes and extract DNA to do phylogenetic comparisons. We are interested in looking at how many species there are in the Dry Valleys and how closely related they are to each other. Our research extends into predicting the presence and diversity of life based on the soil and its properties. This sort of work can be used for previously unexplored areas of the earth or on other planets.

Wormherders unloading a Bell 212, the best, most scenic, and only way to get in and out of the valleys.

The most exciting part of our work was in the field. We would get all suited up in our ECW and head down to the helicopter pad. I had never before ridden in a helicopter, and it was such a thrill to see the vast expanse of ocean ice and the snow-capped peaks of the Royal Society mountain range as we were flown to various sample collection sites in the Dry Valleys.

Although my internship lasted only five weeks, it was a part of my life that I will never forget. Since returning, I have had many people ask me what the most memorable part of it was, and that is a difficult question to answer. For me it is the interaction with the scientists, and the relationships I developed with them. I had a chance to work with some of the top scientists in the world from diverse fields of study: biology, geology, meteorology, physics, hydrology, etc. It was overwhelming to work with and learn from these intellectual giants. The greatest impact was that they treated me like a colleague rather than a student. This experience has strengthened my testimony of the gospel and has provided me with much needed occupational direction.

Professor Byron Adams and Dillman at McMurdo entrance, with Observation Hill in the background.

While Antarctica is a harsh continent, it is also a place of unsurpassed beauty and holds a wealth of knowledge about our world. The spirit of Antarctic exploration is very much alive and can be summed up with the immortal words inscribed on the cross at the top of Observation Hill that serves as a memorial of those who sought the pole and never returned: “To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield.”

1. United States Antarctic Program Participant Guide 2004–2006 Edition, NSF 4201 Wilson Boulevard Arlington, Virginia 22230.
2. Sasser, J.N. and Freckman, D.W. “A World Perspective on Nematology: The Role of Society,” J.A. Veech and D.W. Dickson, eds. Vistas on Nematology, Hyattsville, Maryland, USA, Society of Nematolgists, 1987, p. 7–14.
3. Wall, D.H. “Implications for Change: Aboveground and Belowground Interactions in a Low Biodiversity Ecosystem,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in press, 2006.
4. Adams, B.J., R.D. Bardgett, E. Ayres, E., et al., “Diversity and Distribution of Victoria Land Biota,” Soil Biology and Biochemistry in press, 2006.