Long imagined to be virtual dead zones, perhaps since humans first trekked to the Arctic and Antarctic a century ago, the polar regions are actually living laboratories where scientists can study the mechanisms of evolution and adaptation to some of the harshest conditions on Earth. At the extreme ends of the planet, life persists, adapts and astounds in its abilities to survive at all.
At the South Pole, it is possible, according to one NSF-funded scientist, that microbes can eke out a living. Some come to life after lying dormant for thousands of years in hyper-salty, frozen lakes. Other microbes may survive thousands of meters below the Antarctic ice sheet in ancient Lake Vostok, deep in the continent's interior.
Fish have blood that acts like antifreeze to keep them alive in frigid oceans.
Birds and mammals dive to great ocean depths and swim and hunt for long periods without harm.
Creatures, unknown to science until recently, swim the world's southernmost ocean.
There may even be more than meets the eye, biologically speaking, in some familiar creatures. One NSF-funded researcher recently reported that, based on DNA analysis, killer whales who inhabit the waters around McMurdo Station, NSF's research hub in Antarctica, may be a new and previously unknown species of orca unique to that ecological niche.
Along with similarly hardy and exotic creatures elsewhere on the globe, these creatures are known collectively to science as "extremophiles." What scientists can learn from studying them will tell us not only a great deal about the individual species themselves, it is also likely to inform other fields of biology. Who knows, for example, what studying the physiology of a diving seal's ability to survive enormous underwater pressures for long periods and on a single breath may one day mean to medicine?
Understanding how creatures adapt to polar cold, darkness and radiation may even lead to new ways to determine whether life exists--most likely at the microscopic level--on other planets and moons
of the solar system. Conditions on Mars and Jupiter's moon, Europa, for instance, are very similar to those found in Antarctica's Dry Valleys and in Lake Vostok.
Though scientists have long studied the behavior of some of the better-known polar species such as penguins and seals, the new tools of biochemistry, molecular biology and microbiology will allow researchers to enter a new age of understanding how animals survive and adapt to extremes that characterize the polar regions.
Emphasizing the potential importance of the biological discoveries that are yet to be made in the polar regions, a 2003 report from the National Academy of Sciences said, "Many of the potential discoveries to be made in the study of adaptations of polar organisms stand not only to make important contributions to basic biological science but also to offer opportunities for advancing biotechnology and biomedicine." The report, Polar Biology in the Genomic Era, calls on NSF to "develop a major new initiative in polar genomic sciences."
Such an initiative, the report says, would address such questions as:
- What can be learned from ancient organisms and DNA preserved in permafrost, subglacial lakes and other frozen environments?
- What new types of genetic information enable polar organisms to function under the stresses of polar conditions?
- How rapidly do the genomes of polar organisms evolve?
- What are the evolutionary origins of organisms present in the polar ice caps, glaciers and subglacial lakes?
- How have many polar fishes and other animals succeeded in reducing their metabolic rates and can these mechanisms be used in biotechnology and biomedicine?
- What types of molecules serve as "antifreeze" agents in the blood of fish and other animals and how do they work?
- What are the impacts of human influence on the polar regions?
The list goes on, matching the diversity of life at the extremes.
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