One of the coolest (pun intended) things about Belgica is that they can literally freeze solid. When their habitats freeze, the blood (insect blood is called hemolymph) inside of a Belgica larva turns to ice. Not many insects are capable of surviving freezing, and one of my research goals is to figure out how this amazing process works. While on station and back in my lab at University of Kentucky, I am conducting experiments to learn what sorts of changes happen inside a larva’s body when it freezes. In addition to allowing us to better understand how Belgica survives in Antarctica’s harsh climate, this work could help improve human medicine. The ability to freeze human organs for long periods of time would benefit sick people in need of transplants, but freezing organs currently isn’t possible. By learning how this tiny midge survives frozen solid for nine months a year, we hope that scientists in the future will be able to design better strategies for freezing human organs for transplants.
In addition to the biology of freezing, I am also interested in learning how Belgica evolved to survive Antarctica’s climate. In future projects, we will be comparing Belgica with other closely related midge species to see what is different about Belgica. We will also compare populations of Belgica from different parts of Antarctica to see how Belgica adapts to variable climates along the Antarctic Peninsula.
This is my third trip to Antarctica, and I am excited to be back. It has been seven years since I last came to Antarctica as a grad student at Ohio State University. We have a great team this year, and it has been fun working with some old colleagues (Yuta and Ben) and the new wave of Antarctic insect researchers (JD and Leslie). It is privilege to work in this beautiful place, and hopefully these blog entries will give you a glimpse into the life of an Antarctic scientist