Equipped with a portable lab kit, a generator, a small tent, and plenty of warm clothes, an international team of scientists recently conducted genetic tests of the bacteria that thrive in one of the driest, coldest places on Earth Antarcticas Dry Valleys. This is believed to be the first time DNA fingerprinting of soil microbes has been performed in the field on the Earths frozen continent.
The two-week research mission, conducted in February, marked the first in a series of expeditions to assess the diversity of microorganisms that inhabit Antarctica.
The effort was led by scientists Don Cowan from the University of Western Cape Town in South Africa and Roy Daniel from the University of Waikato in New Zealand with support from Antarctica New Zealand,
and by marine biologist Craig Cary from the University of Delaware in the United States. Carys participation was made possible through a grant from the
U.S. National Science Foundation. Graduate students
Sarah Hawkins from the University of Waikato and
Samantha Whiting from University College, London, also participated in the project.
Unlike most of Antarctica, the Dry Valleys are not covered in snow and ice. This vast region of exposed soil and rock, punctuated here and there by icy lakes, forms a frigid desert. In fact, some scientists believe that no rain has fallen in the Dry Valleys for over 4 million years.
Learning more about the microscopic life that can survive these demanding conditions appeals to Cary, Cowan, and Daniel, who typically study bacteria that live in much hotter surroundings. Previously, Cowan and Daniel had worked primarily with the bacteria that inhabit hot springs on land, while Carys focus had been on the microbes that live at underwater hot springs called hydrothermal vents found over a mile deep in the ocean where new seafloor is being formed.