Roberta Farrell has been working in huts since 1997. Not just any old huts – Roberta is one of a multinational team (K021) who has conducted research at Antarctica’s historic huts, built by explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton in the early 20th century.
These wooden huts have survived for over 100 years in Antarctica’s extreme environment, but they are still being damaged by UV light, wind, salt, and the growth of microorganisms such as moulds and soft-rot fungi. Roberta, her students from the University of Waikato and her colleagues from the Universities of Minnesota (USA) and Bath (UK) are studying the processes of damage and decay, and informing conservation treatment.
What’s the problem?
Roberta, a biochemist, is part of a multidisciplinary research team. She works with microbiologists, wood chemists, biochemists and molecular biologists to collect data to discover just how the microorganisms that are damaging the huts can survive the sub-zero Antarctic winters. When temperatures rise above 0ºC, ice melt within the huts provides enough moisture for the fungi to grow and reproduce.
Because of this, Antarctic Heritage Trust which has a major conservation programme in place, was worried that, if too many people visited the huts, heat from their bodies and moisture from their breath could add to the problem. But the scientists recorded temperature and relative humidity in the huts before, during and after groups of visitors, and found that the visits had no effect on the hut environment.
During their research project, and the subject of the PhD thesis of Shona Duncan, Roberta and her colleagues have taken more than 1,000 samples from within the huts and isolated bacteria and fungi from 724 of them. These are stored in the University of Waikato Antarctic culture collection. The scientists tested some of the fungi from their samples at a range of temperatures (4ºC–25ºC) to determine in what conditions they would grow. They found that all the organisms grew even at 4ºC, and three species produced more new cells at 4ºC than at any other temperature – they were cold adapted and even produced different enzymes to digest the wood depending on the temperature.
So far, the team have found that the historic Antarctic huts contain both introduced and endemic fungi. These organisms are well adapted to survive and reproduce in their harsh environment. Many of them cause decay in the timbers of the huts and in other items, such as boots and clothing, left by the early explorers. This poses a real challenge to people working to conserve the huts for the future.
Nature of Science
Scientists can sometimes learn more about things around them by doing something to them and noting what happens.