Seal mummies harbour microbial secrets in Antarctica

Researchers in Antarctica have co-opted some unlikely assistants in their examination of microbial communities in the southern continent.

Mummified seals, found in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica,  have been used by the researchers as a of way changing the environment experienced by microbes. Scientists moved a 250-year old seal carcass 20 meters to an untouched piece of land, then over several years monitored how bacteria adapted to life under the seal – with more humidity, less light and stablised temperature.

To their surprise, the researchers found the microbes adapted very quickly to the presence of the seal.  DNA fingerprinting and new sequencing techniques , used to track the changes in microbial composition and structure, revealed that the microbial ecosystems had changed dramatically.  It took only two years for major changes to occur during the five year study.

On of the researchers, Professor Craig Cary, from the University of Waikato, says Polar systems are particularly susceptible to climate change and this study will provide a foundation for future observations on the fate of life in the face of change in these extreme environments.

The results of their investigation have been published this week in Nature Communications, an international online science journal.

The seal carcass was used due the restrictive nature of research the Dry Valleys, where the introduction of foreign material and equipment in the pristine environment is discouraged.

The research has been reported on around the globe, with examples including:

LiveScience: Seal Mummies Reveal Surprising Rapid Antarctic Changes

Wired: Mummified seals shed light on microbe communities

TV3 News: Mummified seals reveal effects of climate change in Antarctica

Huffington Post: Antarctica’s Dry Valleys And Seal Mummies Reveal Microbial Change