An­tar­tica here we come!

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Two Rhodes Univer­sity mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gists will join a team of 50 re­searchers from 30 coun­tries to par­tic­i­pate in the first cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Antarc­tica this month and which will fin­ish in March.

The pur­pose of this pro­ject is to lay the ground­work for un­der­stand­ing how marine ecosys­tems in the South­ern Ocean, which sur­rounds Antarc­tica, func­tion on a large scale. The South­ern Ocean and Antarc­tica are part of the po­lar re­gions which are crit­i­cally af­fected by cli­mate change.

“This is a once in a life­time research cruise, the first time it is ever be­ing done. We want to use this op­por­tu­nity to shine a light on the hid­den life in the marine sys­tems, and also in­crease aware­ness of the global im­por­tance of the South­ern Ocean,” said Prof Rose­mary Dor­ring­ton, DST/NRF SARChI pro­fes­sor in Marine Natural Prod­ucts Research.

The South­ern Ocean refers to the region where At­lantic, In­dian and Pa­cific Ocean wa­ters come to­gether to en­cir­cle Antarc­tica. The im­por­tance of the South­ern Ocean is that it ab­sorbs heat and is a ma­jor sink for car­bon diox­ide, CO², play­ing a crit­i­cal role in mit­i­gat­ing the ef­fects of global warm­ing. Mi­cro­scopic or­gan­isms in­clud­ing al­gae and bac­te­ria re­move this CO² from the wa­ter and con­vert it to biomass that sinks to the bot­tom, al­low­ing the ocean to ab­sorb more green­house gasses from the at­mos­phere. This process is known as car­bon se­ques­tra­tion. How­ever, as the wa­ter warms, the abil­ity to ab­sorb and se­quester CO² de­creases, ac­cel­er­at­ing the rate of global warm­ing.

The mi­cro-or­gan­isms that are do­ing all this work in the South­ern Ocean, driv­ing CO² cap­ture and the cy­cling of nu­tri­ents, are the bedrock of marine ecosys­tems and are in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye. “And we know al­most noth­ing about who they are, what they do, how they will re­spond to cli­mate change and what the con­se­quences will be for the food chain that sup­ports the vis­i­ble marine world that we rely on for food,” said Dor­ring­ton.

PhD can­di­date Sa­man­tha Water­worth and Prof Dor­ring­ton, of the Bio­chem­istry Depart­ment will par­tic­i­pate in leg one and leg three of the cruise, re­spec­tively. The Rus­sian Po­lar Research Ves­sel, R/N Akademik Tresh­nikov, will set sail from Cape Town Harbour on 20 De­cem­ber. The ex­pe­di­tion con­sists of three legs: the first leg is from Cape Town to Ho­bart, Aus­tralia; the sec­ond leg con­tin­ues to Punta Are­nas, South Amer­ica; and the third leg re­turns to South Africa on 18 March.

“We will be col­lect­ing more than 800 sam­ples. We will use molec­u­lar tools to study the mi­cro­bial com­mu­ni­ties to see who is there, what are they do­ing and try to fig­ure out why,” ex­plained Dor­ring­ton. “We are also in­ter­ested in the potential for these mi­crobes to pro­duce novel chem­i­cals (marine natural prod­ucts) that can have phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal potential.

“While the ter­res­trial sys­tems are rel­a­tively well char­ac­terised, we know al­most noth­ing about mi­cro­bial dy­nam­ics in the South­ern Ocean, de­spite the bi­o­log­i­cal im­por­tance of the mi­cro­bial food webs. This ex­pe­di­tion will lay the foun­da­tion for un­der­stand­ing the open ocean ecosys­tem and we re­ally need to un­der­stand how it works if we want to be able to mit­i­gate the ef­fects of cli­mate change in the region and in South­ern Africa,” she said.

South African re­searchers have been work­ing on the Subantarc­tic Prince Ed­ward Is­lands, which are crit­i­cally im­por­tant as breed­ing grounds for marine top preda­tors (seals, pen­guins, al­ba­tross) for more than 50 years. These is­lands, are re­garded as “sen­tinels for cli­mate change” be­cause their en­vi­ron­ment is chang­ing rapidly. Av­er­age sea wa­ter tem­per­a­tures have risen by ap­prox­i­mately 1.5C and fur­ther warm­ing will have cat­a­strophic ef­fects on the abil­ity of the is­lands to sup­port their unique marine wildlife. And the marine mi­cro­bial com­mu­ni­ties are the first to re­spond to these changes.

“South African re­searchers are al­ready ac­tive in the South­ern In­dian Ocean but through the ACE pro­ject, we are look­ing for­ward to de­velop South-South part­ner­ships with South Amer­i­can coun­tries like Brazil, Chile and Ar­gentina, to look at the phys­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal dy­nam­ics of the South At­lantic. So the next step will be to de­velop the link­ages with our South Amer­i­can part­ners,” added Dor­ring­ton.

The third leg will co­in­cide with Scifest Africa, which is from 8 to 14 March 2017. The re­searchers hope to be able to in­ter­act by Skype and satel­lite phone ev­ery day so that learn­ers can in­ter­act with them about the cruise, life on the Tresh­nikov and the work that they are do­ing.

The ship docks in Cape Town on Fri­day and the Swiss Em­bassy is host­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion at the V&A Wa­ter­front with dis­plays and talks about the ex­pe­di­tion. The Tresh­nikov will be vis­i­ble at its moor­ing on the East Pier. The re­searchers will be post­ing videos and pho­to­graphs and sharing these on In­sta­gram and an ACE Pro­ject Blog. Fol­low them on In­sta­gram at sa_ace_pro­ject.

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