At the bottom of the world, a handful of very cold researchers risked freezing their pipettes off trying to understand what makes some of the hardiest bugs on earth tick.
During a two-week mission to Antarctica’s Dry Valley, a desolate expanse of jagged rocks and frozen earth that occupies one of the few spaces on that continent not covered by ice, four scientists sought to study the few microorganisms that comfortably exist there.
The team, comprising scientists from the University of Western Cape Town, in South Africa, the University of Waikato, in New Zealand, and London’s University College, occupied a few tiny domed tents outfitted with a portable molecular lab that fits into a suitcase and weighs upwards of 40 pounds.
The goodies in that kit, made by MJ Research of Waltham, Mass., let the scientists perform DNA fingerprinting on microbes that live in a part of the world that last saw rain 4 million years ago. Data that they collect from their trip, they say, might help others to develop research tools that can stand up to such extreme temperatures. The kit allowed for DNA extraction, PCR with universal or selective primers, and electrophoresis, according to Craig Cary, a visiting professor at the University of Waikato and one of the Antarctica researchers.
The scientists performed their work as if they were in their own university labs — except that they usually sat crouched on frozen ground and operated their pipettes dressed in down windbreakers, snow pants, fleece balaclavas, and 10-pound insulated boots. Though it was the middle of the arctic summer, temperatures in the tents seldom broke zero degrees Celsius, more often hovering around -8.
“The only thing that I changed was we used an Invitrogen dry gel product for the electrophoresis, as the wet one that came with the unit would have frozen,” Cary says.
— Kirell Lakhman