Hello from New Zealand! I’m Holly Bik, a biologist and professor at the University of Georgia. I’m leading a team of 4 people hauling up mud around Antarctica to study the evolution and ecology of marine nematodes. Nematodes are mostly microscopic and translucent — they look like specks of dust on a glass table. Thousands to millions of nematodes live in every handful of sand, dirt, or mud on Earth. Because so many of them exist everywhere, nematodes move nutrients around and play outsized roles in physically shaping soil-based ecosystems. Knowing more about nematodes helps us understand how ecosystems function (and how humans can impact and manage ecosystems) everywhere.
Sharing the joy of science is really important to me, so I used one of my team’s slots to bring a media specialist on the ship. We’ve already been doing some fun events to share this experience and talk to folks about deep-sea biology. We’re sharing brief daily updates via WhatsApp because the ship’s internet will eventually get too slow for other tools to work: https://chat.whatsapp.com/BZwq4D7FF847sUsxTGTgHY
There are three questions that my team will be trying to answer using nematode worms as a study organism:
1) What's down there? No US science vessel has been to this part of Antarctica for 22 years! So while we can guess what the deep sea will mostly be like there, it's one big shrug on the details. We care because missing the details means we're missing information about evolution - we can't see the whole puzzle without all the pieces. And Antarctica has been cut off from the other oceans for millions of years, so looking at evolution there tells us all sorts of stuff we can't learn elsewhere.
2) Does deep-sea or shallow-sea win? Antarctica is the only place on Earth where the deep sea emerges into the shallows, because it's just as cold in the shallows as it is down deep. So does place or ancestry matter more for what lives where? This is especially important to know as climate change scrambles where things can live - it may help us predict how things could go (and then help!).
3) What's going on with the bacteria that live on nematodes' skin? Nematodes all over the world seem to have special relationships with bacteria and are sometimes covered in them. Why? Is that relationship different down here in Antarctica, where everything has been isolated from the rest of the world? We don't really know why this might be important, but there are thousands of nematodes in every handful of mud or sand on Earth, so we'd better figure it out!
If you want to know more about our research questions, our technical project summary can be accessed here: https://www.usap.gov/sciencesupport/scienceplanningsummaries/2022_2023/results.cfm?formAction=detail&ID=2926
Dr. Holly Bik
University of Georgia
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