Chilean scientists will be heading to Antarctica this summer, hoping to unlock some of the many secrets hidden beneath the snow and ice of the world’s most extreme continent.
Three separate expeditions are hoping for a wide range of discoveries – from microorganisms to dinosaur fossils – and their potential applications could range from preserving pharmaceutical drugs to creating eco-friendly fertilizers.
The Bioscience Foundation of Santiago will head one of those missions in a search for new extremophiles, microorganisms that thrive in conditions so severe that they are uninhabitable for most lifeforms on Earth.
The study and biotechnological application of these microorganisms has already led to revolutionary forms of treating industrial waste water – especially useful for a country like Chile, with its hugely important mining industry.
Despite being comparatively few in number, the industrial application of extremophiles appears almost limitless. Applications so far range from enhanced UV protection in sunblock to the prevention of food products losing their taste when frozen.
Another mission is focusing on Antarctica’s limited range of flora, which is scientifically interesting for its ability to survive the conditions of the world’s most extreme continent.
One of these, the Deschampsia Antarctica, is being investigated by a team of Chilean scientists, led by Jennifer Osorio, who believe it could provide breakthroughs in the development of environmentally-friendly fertilizers.
To survive its freezing habitat, the plant’s roots interact with bacteria in the Antarctic soil. The team hopes to use the bacteria in the creation of new bio-fertilizers, which would reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.
In contrast to the microscopic focus of the first two expeditions, the third mission, led by David Rubilar of Chile’s National Museum of Natural History, will hunt for findings of a grander scale – in size, at least.
Rubilar and his team will leave for the Antarctic Peninsula in January in a hunt for dinosaur and prehistoric plant fossils that date back to a period some 70 million years ago.
Last year, Rubilar’s team discovered the fossils of extinct penguins, conifers and shark teeth, as well as the partial remains of giant marine reptiles, the Mosasaur and Plesiosaur, which hunted the earth’s oceans around 65 million years ago.
“Antarctica is the last frontier in paleontology,” Rubilar told La Tercera. “The country has been covered with ice, hiding rocks with fossils for thousands of years.”