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Dispatches from an Antarctic co-op: Science

About Me

My name is Jake Grondin. I’m a rising junior in the College of Science, majoring in Biology, with minors in Physics and Math. I am one of two co-ops currently residing at Palmer Station, Antarctica working in Professor Bill Detrich’s lab. In this blog I am sharing my experiences on this incredible continent, and I hope you will continue to read along.

This co-op is one of the reasons I came to Northeastern, and I’ll start by saying it is most definitely not for everyone. As a research assistant, I work in the labs and stay on station through the Antarctic winter. Even though I’ve only been here for a short time, Palmer Station has become a very special place to me, and I am thrilled to be able to share this continent with the rest of the University and beyond.

If you haven’t already, read Jake’s previous posts here:

Mid-winter greetings

When we don’t work

Station Living

The Journey South

By this point you should all have a pretty good idea of how I spend my free time, and how different life here is on the ice, but I am here for a co-op, and that means I work, a lot.

Lab Space

On the ground floor of our main BioLab building lies 10 lab spaces, fit for all the research groups that are present during the summer months. Because Maggie Streeter, Dr. Nathalie R. Le François of the Biodôme de Montréal, and I are the only scientists on station in the winter, the labs feel a bit empty, so we have no shortage of space. The facilities are equipped with quite an array of analytical tools and centrifuges, fridges, freezers (down to -70 degrees C), shakers, microscopes, etc. Given that we are located far from civilization, you would think that we would struggle with equipment, but it has not been limiting thus far. This is because months of planning goes into the preparation of a season on the ice – we cannot simply order a piece of equipment we may need at the last moment!

This is “Lab 10”, one of the labs provided to the Detrich Group for the winter. It’s quite spacious, and it’s where I do most of my experiments on station. Photo by Jake Grondin

 

Icefish

Here on the Antarctic Peninsula, we are lucky to have access to unique species found only in the Southern Ocean. Many of our studies focus on icefish, a unique group of species with “white blood;” they do not have hemoglobin or red blood cells for oxygen transport. Rather, they rely on the low level of oxygen that is physically dissolved in their blood fluid. To deliver sufficient oxygen, the blood volumes, hearts and vasculature of icefish are greatly expanded compared to red-blooded relatives. Because they are barely “making it” on the oxygen front, icefish behave quite differently from fish we see in Boston. They are sluggish, ambush feeders.

This is a syringe of white blood drawn from an icefish. This blood consists of plasma and white blood cells; red blood cells are completely absent. Photo by Juliette Auvinet.

The following video was taken inside one of our icefish tanks on station. Here, you see several species, including the blackfin icefish Chaenocephalus aceratus and the South Georgia icefish Pseudochaenichthys georgianus. We also briefly see some Chaenodraco wilsoni and Chionodraco rastrospinosus. They do not move much, and when they do, they swim with their pectoral fins, not their tails.

As described, you are looking at fish with white blood. They operate by using little energy, usually resting on their pectoral fins.

Aquarium/ Environmental Rooms

In addition to the lab space we have on station, we have tanks in the station aquarium for keeping our adult fish at about 0 degrees C. We also have two Environmental Rooms with incubators that enable us to keep embryos of the red-blooded species, the Bullhead notothen Notothenia coriiceps, at 0 or +4 degrees C with precise temperature control. An image of the aquarium is shown below.

The aquarium. The two doors in the back are the environmental rooms, which can be chilled and maintained precisely at cold temperatures. Photo by Jake Grondin

Research

Day to day, Maggie and I are responsible for upkeep and maintenance of the tanks, fish, and embryos. Our main goal is to keep the bullhead embryos alive and to obtain samples at important developmental stages for the Detrich climate change study. The embryos are being raised at two temperatures, 0 and +4 degrees C, to study development at a currently “normal” temperature (O C) and at a temperature (+4 C) that the Southern Ocean may attain in one to two centuries. You’ll hear more about the embryo work in a later post!

Maggie and I have also been involved in a wide variety of other projects, including analysis of the evolution of retinal oxygenation in Antarctic fish and the evolution of their karyotypes (chromosome numbers). We have also been accumulating morphological, genetic, and histological data to understand better the reproductive strategies of these fish. For example, we are pursuing a project to characterize the reproductive life history of the red-blooded Crowned Notothen, Trematomus scotti, which was named after Robert Falcon Scott, one of the very first explorers of the Antarctic continent. Some of the research questions we are attempting to answer include: 1) At what age/size does T. scotti become reproductively mature? 2) How much energy do males and females of this species invest in reproduction? 3) How many eggs are typically produced by a female?

Most of our sampling for the morphological, histological, and genetic studies requires dissection to retrieve the organs and cells we need. I was lucky enough to shadow Dr. Thomas Desvignes from the University of Oregon while he was here to observe the proper techniques for dissection!

 

 

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