Over 8,000 miles south, just off the coast of Antarctica lies Signy Island. Here we set the scene for our intrepid explorer Dr James Chong, of the University of York’s Biology department, who withstood freezing temperatures and dodged elephant seals all in the name of science. Aided by the RAF, 36 gas canisters, and a (very big) handful of UV lights, James set off to investigate methanogen activity in the Antarctic.
Yet even before the work could begin, Dr Chong had to survive a two week journey by ship, plane, car, and foot. Along the way, stops were made at the Falkland and Bird Islands, with other research stations being refuelled as they went. Eventually Signy came into sight and Dr. Chong began conducting his experiments.
Firstly suitable locations needed to be found. These had to be relatively untouched areas of snow above ice. Once located, holes were dug into the snow in order to house UV lights. A canister was also placed on the snow surface to allow for the collection of gases. As a positive control, samples were also taken from nearby water sources.
The aim was simple, to measure the activity of the microbes in each of the locations, with the UV lights providing the negative control half way through collection. This was due to ability of UV light to destroy microbes. With the lights activated, measurements could be taken which accounted for any gases not produced by bacteria or archaea, allowing for comparisons with pre-UV measurements. The presence or lack of microbes was also tested for via the use of Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a process of significantly increasing the quantity of a desired DNA sequence.
The gases being detected were Methyl halides were; these being a good proxy for the presence of other, more abundant gases, such as carbon dioxide, present in the atmosphere. Because these molecules are produced and consumed by certain microbes, any unexpected activity could potentially undermine ice core records. This is of particular importance due to these records being one aspect of climate change data.
But it wasn’t just microbes James encountered during his time down South. One incident found him face to face with a young Elephant seal lying next to one of his test sites. Dr Chong also had the opportunity to get up close and personal with Chinstrap, Gentoo and Adélie Penguins; creatures which have been studied on site for decades.
The initial data suggests that the experiments were successful. However, we will have to wait a few months until all the equipment returns from Signy Island. When it’s all back in the UK, James will be sending samples to various labs in order to piece together the full picture, so keep your eyes peeled.
Future plans are to refine the experiments with increased sampling and more time points by going back to the same or similar sites. This study is very much the first step in a larger investigation. In the mean time, Dr Chong has already received an offer to venture northwards to the Arctic Circle, so more boundary-pushing adventures may be on the horizon.