Photo Credit: Natalie Ylizarde; Dr. Denlinger conducting field work on Cormorant Island in search of Belgica larvae.

Polar regions are deserts that are not only cold but also lack access to free water. Antarctic insects have unique survival mechanisms including the ability to tolerate freezing and extensive dehydration, surviving the loss of 70% of their body water.

How this is done is important not only for understanding seasonal adaptations of insects and how they respond to climate change, but the molecular and physiological mechanisms employed may offer valuable insights into more general mechanisms that might be exploited for cryopreservation and long-term storage of human tissues and organs for transplantation and other medical applications.

Our project focuses on deciphering the physiological and molecular mechanisms that enable the Antarctic midge Belgica antarctica to survive environmental stress and severe dehydration in the desiccating polar environment. This extremophile is an ideal system for investigating mechanisms of stress tolerance and local geographic adaptations.

Research will Focus in Three Areas:

1) Evaluating the role of aquaporins (water channel proteins) in the rapid removal of water from the body by studying expression of their genes during dehydration.

2) Investigating the mechanism of metabolic depression and the role of autophagy (controlled breakdown of cellular components) as a mediator of stress tolerance by studying expression of the genes responsible for autophagy during the dehydration process.

3) Evaluating the population structure, gene flow, and adaptive variation in physiological traits associated with stress tolerance using a genetic approach that takes advantage of the genomic sequence available for this species coupled with physiological and environmental data from the sampled populations and their habitats.

The project will also further the NSF goals of making scientific discoveries available to the general public and of training new generations of scientists. Each year a K-12 teacher will be a member of the field team and assist with fieldwork and outreach to school children and their teachers. Educational outreach efforts include presentations at local schools and national teacher meetings, providing lesson plans and podcasts on a website, and continuing to publish articles related to this research in education journals. In addition, undergraduate and graduate students will receive extensive training in all aspects of the research project with extended experiences that include publication of scientific papers and presentations at national meetings.