NSFGEO-NERC: Mechanisms of Adaptation to Terrestrial Antarctica through Comparative Physiology and Genomics of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic Insects

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: Sch of Biosciences


Insects are the most abundant and diverse terrestrial animals on the planet, yet few are capable of surviving in Antarctica's inhospitable climate. Genetic evidence indicates that Antarctic insects, as well as other terrestrial arthropods, have persisted throughout the repeated glaciation events of the Pleistocene and earlier. Thus, these species are ideal test cases for modeling the biogeography of terrestrial Antarctica and evolutionary responses to changing environments. The midge Belgica antarctica is perhaps the best studied Antarctic terrestrial arthropod in terms of physiology and genetics. This species is the southernmost free-living insect, and we recently participated in sequencing the genome and transcriptome of this species. However, a lack of information from closely related species has hindered our ability to pinpoint the precise evolutionary mechanisms that permit survival in Antarctica. In this proposal, we establish an international collaboration with scientists from the US, UK, France, and Chile to expand physiological and genomic research of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic midges. In addition to B. antarctica, our project focuses on Eretmoptera murphyi, a sub-Antarctic endemic that has invaded the maritime Antarctic, Halirytus magellanicus, a strictly Magellanic sub-Antarctic species endemic to Tierra del Fuego, and B. albipes, a sub-Antarctic species found on Crozet Island in the Indian Ocean. These four species are closely related and span an environmental gradient from sub-Antarctic to Antarctic habitats.

Our central hypothesis is that shared mechanisms drive both population-level adaptation to local environmental conditions and macroevolutionary changes that permit a select few insects to tolerate Antarctic climates. Our Specific Aims are 1) Characterize conserved and species-specific adaptations to extreme environments through comparative physiology and transcriptomics, 2) Comparative genomics of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic midges to identify macroevolutionary signatures of Antarctic adaptation, and 3) Investigate patterns of diversification and location adaptation using population genomics. Our Broader Impacts include deploying an education professional with our research team to coordinate outreach and continuing our partnership with a Kentucky non-profit focused on K-12 STEM programming.

Planned Impact

Our project will benefit STEM education through K-12 outreach and significant training and outreach opportunities for graduate students and postdocs in both US and UK. Continuing the tradition of past projects, we will deploy an education professional on each field team to participate in field work and coordinate K-12 outreach efforts. We will also develop our existing partnership with the Living Arts and Science Center, a Kentucky nonprofit that provides STEM programming for students. Specifically, our research team will design and implement a lesson on Antarctic biology for Science Explorers, an afterschool science program for underprivileged students in Lexington, KY. Our UK project partners also have strong records of public engagement - Hayward has already run collaborative teaching projects with the UoB School, and is involved in the NERC funded ENCOMPASS Project. Convey serves as the UK STEM Ambassador for the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists. Our Chilean Partner in collaboration with Convey has already received Newton-Picarte funding in support of regional outreach and education activities in Tierra del Fuego, reaching local educational, industrial, military and governance sectors of local communities

Other non-academic users linked to this proposal will be POLICY MAKERS and their science advisors. In the UK our major stakeholder is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), with whom BAS have active dialogue, and who are very interested in and encouraging the application of research related to biodiversity and regional biogeography in the context of conservation and biosecurity.

Through the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the Antarctic Treaty System, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, the proposal will generate key baseline evidence refining biogeographical understanding of the region, and therefore the quality of advice that can be given to GOVERNANCE ORGANISATIONS. Further, through the UK's leading participation in the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM, Antarctica's governing body), considerable effort is currently being dedicated to the design of robust and objective area protection systems, and of an 'Antarctic CONSERVATION Strategy'. All partners are closely involved in all these activities, and Convey is Deputy Co-Chair of the SCAR 'State of the Antarctic Ecosystem' programme.

A related user group are the ECOTOURISM industry, in particular the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), who rely strongly on maintenance of the unique biodiversity of the southern and Antarctic regions, as well as promoting regional science in their education and outreach activities, and encouraging client involvement in 'citizen science'.
Our outputs on understanding stress mechanisms (such as those underpinning freeze tolerance), have direct applications in both INDUSTRY and MEDICAL RESEARCH. For example, the ability to cryopreserve 'live' insects or their cells (e.g. sperm) has huge value for commercial insect producers, as well as broader applications with other biological material (including organ transplants).

All partners are actively engaged in PUBLIC OUTREACH activities through their respective Press Offices, regularly interacting with various media outlets, NGOs, public societies, etc. .

The use of 'open access' routes for publication, along with public access databases, our own institution and project websites, as well as other mechanisms of publicising our research (e.g. social media, blogs, general interest articles etc.) will ensure our outputs are highly and rapidly visible to all relevant stakeholder communities.


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