Young Chileans earn Antarctic trip for finding unique bacteria

The science competition winners will take the journey of a lifetime thanks to their fascinating discovery of a strain with the power to degrade hydrocarbons. 

Omayra Toro and Naomi Estay, both 17 years old, have spent the last two years studying Antarctica as high school students at Liceo 1 of Santiago. Their passion for science led them to spend hours in their school’s laboratories, classifying bacteria.
It was there that they discovered a special bacteria strain that lives in Antarctica, which has the power to degrade hydrocarbons.
The work is important because, by using a microorganism, this discovery could allow for bioremediation, or the cleanup of contaminated soils.
The girls recently presented their project at the IX Antarctic IX School Fair, held in Magallanes. The pair took first place in the experimental category and were rewarded with a one-week trip to Antarctica, which will begin in late February 2013.
«This is the dream of every child scientist. I’m looking forward to the trip,» Toro, who wants to become an environmental biologist, told La Tercera.
Her classmate Estay notes that «we have found a solution to the looming problem that Antarctica faces in terms of oil pollution. There are bacteria outside the continent that can degrade hydrocarbons, but international treaties are preventing external organisms from being brought to Antarctica,» she said.
To develop their research, Toro and Estay were supported by José Manuel Pérez, a biochemist with a Ph.D in microbiology from the Universidad de Chile, who had samples of Antarctic microorganisms in his laboratory.
«They studied more than 100 types of bacteria and found a strain that has the potential to be used in cleaning the Antarctic territory contaminated with hydrocarbons, such as phenanthrene,» he said.
About the trip
The teens’ interest in science has been supported by their school. This is actually the third time that students from this campus have won the competition, which is organized by the Instituto Antártico Chileno, or the Chilean Antarctic Institute, and the Chilean air force, or Fuerza Aérea de Chile.
In addition to the students of Liceo 1, four other students from Antofagasta and Punta Arenas will also be part of the expedition, which will involve scientists from around the world.
The trip will depart from Punta Arenas, where the expedition will fly to the South Shetland Islands, where they will see Chilean and foreign bases in Antarctica. There they will tour facilities and accompany scientists in their research.