Worm Herders on Ice

Research stations in Antarctica

This is an abbreviated version of an article that originally appeared in the summer 2006 edition of BRIDGES Alumni Magazine published by the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU. Adler Dillman earned his B.Sc. in 2006 in Microbiology

Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth. Its existence was only hypothesized until it was finally sighted in 1820. The elusive continent now houses over forty research stations run by some seventeen countries and is the focus of the largest multinational research effort in history.1

My undergraduate advisor, Dr. Byron Adams (Microbiology and Molecular Biology) has been part of a long-term ecological research program in Antarctica for five years making annual trips to the McMurdo Dry Valleys. I was delighted to accompany him as part of a soil ecology team during the 2006 austral summer.

Dr. Adams studies nematodes – microscopic roundworms that seem to occupy virtually every habitat on earth. C. elegans, the most widely known nematode, is one of the simplest life forms on earth that has a nervous system. It was the first multi-cellular animal to have its genome sequenced.

Extracting nematode DNA
Addler extracting nematode DNA at McMurdo Lab
Studying nematodes at the bottom of the world helped open my eyes to the importance of Antarctic research. The Antarctic environment 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.2, 3 This was the main focus of our research team, which is affectionately known in Antarctica as "The worm herders."

The harsh Antarctic environment has led to the development of novel survival mechanisms in wildlife. 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 re-hydrate and come back to life—properties that provide exciting new research opportunities.

We arrived in Antarctica in a military transport plane from New Zealand. A large monster-truck transport bus called "Ivan the Terrabus" carried us to our base at McMurdo. Stepping out into that frozen terrain was memorable for me; the pristine fields of white ice and snow were so bright and beautiful. Sunglasses were required at all times.

Dr. Adams and Dr. Diana Wall
Adams and Dr. Diana Wall (principal investigator for the soil ecology team) at a "worm farm" site. Plastic enclosures facilitate treatments and sampling.
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. Because most are restricted to the base, and entertainment is limited, there is a great sense of community as individuals share their talents to benefit others. I greatly appreciated the sense of cooperation I felt—unlike anywhere I've ever lived. One night one of the world's foremost geochemists gave a lecture on his research in Antarctica; the next night he volunteered to help in the cafeteria.

The most exciting part of our work was in the field. Dressed in extreme cold weather gear we flew by helicopter over vast expanses of ocean ice, and the snowcapped peaks of the Royal Society Mountains to our sample collection sites in the Dry Valleys.

Most of my time was spent in the laboratory working with soil samples. We extracted the nematodes from the soil and evaluated how many of which kinds there were. We then isolated individual nematodes and extracted their DNA to do genetic-history comparisons.
Our research extended 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 even on other planets.

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. For me it was interacting 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; they treated me like a colleague rather than a student. The experience strengthened my testimony of the gospel and provided me with much needed occupational direction.

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. 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, 2007.
3. Adams, B.J., R.D. Bardgett, E. Ayres, et al., "Diversity and Distribution of Victoria Land Biota," Soil Biology & Biochemistry 30: 3003-3018, 2006.