NEW YORK, March 25 - 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 University College, in London, occupied a few tiny domed tents outfitted with a portable molecular lab that fits into a suitcase and weighs about 20 kilograms.
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, called the Mobile Molecular Laboratory, let the team "extract DNA, run PCR using universal and selective primers, run electrophoresis and resolve using the [company's] transilluminator and film," Craig Cary, a visiting professor at the University of Waikato and one of the Antarctica researchers, wrote in an e-mail to MJ Research's New Zealand-based distributor.
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 0 degrees Celsius, but more often hovered around -8 degrees Celsius.
"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 wrote. The Mobile Molecular Laboratory costs between $6,000 and $6,500, the MJ Research spokesman said.