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Teachers invited to tap into Antarctic trip

12/07/2004

Ohio researchers are headed to Antarctica to figure out how a tiny bug thrives after being frozen solid, and they want school kids to follow their day-to-day trek.

The research team includes Richard Lee, professor of zoology at Miami University; Luke Sandro, a biology teacher at Springboro High School; and three Ohio State University scientists. They will study a wingless midge named Belgica antarctica that survives conditions including being frozen solid most of the year, soaked in saltwater, deprived of oxygen and dried-up, before it thaws, rehydrates, mates and lays eggs. Then its larvae repeat the extreme life cycle.

The creatures’ ability to survive after freezing has medical implications, say researchers.

The insect live on Anvers Island, just north of the Antarctic Circle, an area heavily affected by global warming: Its average temperature over 50 years has risen nearly 9 degrees Fahrenheit. So researchers will also study the effect of global warming on the bugs.

Sandro and Lee will send updates including digital pictures and video, every 1-2 days to Juanita Constible, a zoologist at Miami, who will resend them to student groups and teachers who have signed up for them. Students will also be able to ask questions about the research, living conditions, wildlife and other aspects of the Antarctic via e-mail. Anyone wishing to participate can e-mail Constible at constijm@muohio.edu. Sandro has already posted polar-related experiments for students in all grade levels online at http://www.units.muohio.edu/cryolab/education/antarctic.htm.

The researchers will focus on three areas relevant to midge stress tolerance:

1. Collect details of this extreme environment: temperature and moisture diversity, salinity levels.

2. Seek physiological and molecular responses to midges’ water availability: Specifically do midge larvae use a means of cryoprotective dehydration for winter survival?

3. Do the midges get some of their freeze protection from compounds in the plants they eat?

Outreach is an important part of the research trip. The educators hope to stimulate interest in Antarctic biology and scientific research not only with the e-mails from the region, but follow-up presentations at local schools and national teacher meetings. The project is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Lee, who was at Anvers Island in 1980 to study this midge, has long studied the cryobiology of various insects, amphibians and reptiles. “The more we know about how creatures survive freezing, the better we can work toward successfully freezing human organs for possible transplant,” says Lee.


Big claim: Belgica antarctica, at less than 1/4 inch, is the continent’s largest free-living terrestrial animal.

(Others, like seals and penguins only live on Anvers Island during the summer.)

Antarctic tidbits: January will have summer temps. in the 40s and days of 20+ hours of sunlight.

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