Georgetown Research on Antarctica Featured at Christopher Joiner Seminar

Johnson in Antarctica

April 12, 2017
by Matt Raab

The 2017 Christopher Joiner Antarctic Seminar took advantage of two separate Georgetown-affiliated trips to Antarctica to provide two unique perspectives on life in Antarctica. Professor Robert Groves, University Provost, overviewed infrastructure for human life at two U.S. research stations, while Professor Sarah Stewart Johnson and a team of student researchers investigated cell survival using new DNA-sequencing techniques that could be adapted to assess life on Mars.

Groves and Johnson both took time to share their findings on Tuesday, giving accounts of both their experience on the continent and the results of their investigations.

Groves began by recounting his time at McMurdo Station, a U.S. research station on Ross Island, a part of Antarctica closest to New Zealand, as well as at the South Pole.

“The chief station is called McMurdo, that’s where we all were,” Groves said. “My job, I had no science to do there so I’ll be a good travel host, my job was to look at every crappy building that existed in Antarctica, and I’ve seen them all.”

Groves’ trip to Antarctica was a function of his position on the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Foundation (NSF).

Professor Robert Groves speaks on his experience in Antarctica at the Joiner Seminar.

“The National Science Foundation was founded in 1950. This was a postwar attempt by our country to make sure that basic science would be funded,” he said. “One of the in-legislation duties of the board is to approve before it goes to Congress the budget of the National Science Foundation.”

In Antarctica, the NSF is overseeing the potential awarding of grants to upgrade infrastructure. For Groves, this meant a trip to evaluate what already exists.

“This is a facility that was built over many decades,” Groves said. “Parts of the structures are clearly falling apart. So the scientists connected with McMurdo station have proposed a renovation–this started out as an $800 million build and it’s now down to $400 million.”

Those numbers, which may seem high, are necessary due to the logistical challenge of getting supplies to Antarctica.

“There are only two ways you get stuff in there,” Groves said. “You have two ships that arrive once a year, one carrying fuel the other carrying supplies, and then you have planes that come in, and you think about the size of the planes, it’s hard to get a building in a plane.”

Ultimately, Groves had to help assess the most productive allotment of money, as any financing of renovations would mean less funding for the robust research that takes place in Antarctica.

One of those research projects was lead by STIA’s Sarah Stewart Johnson, who employed state-of-the-art sequencing technology to better understand the nature of DNA in Antarctica and the dynamics of life in adverse conditions.

Johnson investigated Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, the 1% of Antarctica’s landmass not covered in ice, allowing access to ancient biofilms buried in sediment.

“In the Dry Valleys, there is nothing alive that’s bigger than a midge,” Johnson said. “It hasn’t rained now in the Dry Valleys for 2 million years. This is one of the harshest places on our entire planet.”

It’s incredibly dry, it’s incredibly cold, it’s dark half the year, and if you’re interested in how life survives when it’s pushed to its limits, it’s the perfect place for testing theories.

Johnson wanted to test how long cells can survive in this environment to answer critical questions about cell biology and assess potential applications in the search for life beyond Earth.

“We utilized third generation sequencing techniques to analyze DNA from intact cells,” Johnson said.

This new technology, including a tiny Oxford Nanopore MinION sequencer, allowed Johnson and her team to identify long strands of living DNA, differentiating it from shorter fragments that can be preserved after a cell dies in the dry and extremely cold conditions of Antarctica.

“It may be that conventional approaches to metagenomics in Antarctica need to be revisited,” Johnson said. “Short reads may not be giving us the full picture.”

The research also had implications for the future of DNA sequencing in inaccessible environments as technology advances.

“Someday soon we may be able to deploy a technology like this and get remotely telemetered biological data arriving back to the lab,” Johnson said.

Inhospitable environments where this strategy could be relevant include the winter months of Antarctica and the deepest parts of the ocean. Even further from human comfort zones, the technology could be applied on Mars.

“A lot of people have been thinking about sequencing for astrobiology. I love the idea of sending a sequencer up to Mars,” Johnson said.

On Mars, Johnson suggests, sequencing could also open new windows in the search for signs of life.

“You can use sequencing to look for life that’s nucleic acid based, ‘life as we know it,’ and you can use it track contamination [from spacecraft or human projects on Mars]. You can even harness the power of sequencing to look for patterns of binding chemistry and complexity, even if the sample is unlike anything we know, even if it’s beyond the confines of our imagination,” Johnson said, addressing the possibility of identifying life systems unlike the ones found on Earth.

The Christopher Joiner Antarctic Seminar recognizes the contributions of Dr. Christopher Joiner, a noted expert on international law and Antarctica. Professor Anthony Clark Arend, a former student and colleague of Joiner provided introductory remarks.

Chris would have loved the combination of science of policy, trying to think creatively about where the world is going in this direction and how we as students in the School of Foreign Service might make a positive contribution to both understanding our world and making positive policy decisions about the future of the world. -Professor Anthony Clark Arend