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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Teets NM (2021) Editorial on combatting the cold: Comparative physiology of low temperature and related stressors in arthropods. in Comparative biochemistry and physiology. Part A, Molecular & integrative physiology

Title Data from: Simulated winter warming negatively impacts survival of Antarctica's only endemic insect 
Description Antarctic winters are challenging for terrestrial invertebrates, and species that live there have specialized adaptations to conserve energy and protect against cold injury in the winter. However, rapidly occurring climate change in these regions will increase the unpredictability of winter conditions, and there is currently a dearth of knowledge on how the highly adapted invertebrates of Antarctica will respond to changes in winter temperatures. We evaluated the response of larvae of the Antarctic midge, Belgica antarctica, to simulated winters at three ecologically relevant mean temperature scenarios: Warm (-1 °C), Normal (-3 °C) and Cold (-5 °C). Within each scenario, larvae were placed into three distinct habitat types in which they are commonly observed (decaying organic matter, living moss, and Prasiola crispa algae). Following the simulated overwintering period, a range of physiological outcomes were measured, namely survival, locomotor activity, tissue damage, energy store levels and molecular stress responses. Survival, energy stores and locomotor activity were significantly lower following the Warm overwintering environment than at lower temperatures, but tissue damage and heat shock protein expression (a proxy for protein damage) did not significantly differ between the three temperatures. Survival was also significantly lower in larvae overwintered in Prasiola crispa algae, although the underlying mechanism is unclear. Heat shock proteins were expressed least in larvae overwintering in living moss, suggesting it is less stressful to overwinter in this substrate, perhaps due to a more defined structure affording less direct contact with ice. Our results demonstrate that a realistic 2 °C increase in winter microhabitat temperature reduces survival and causes energy deficits that have implications for subsequent development and reproduction. While our Warm winter scenario was close to the range of observed overwintering temperatures for this species, warmer winters are expected to become more common in response to climate change. Conversely, if climate change reduces the length of winter, some of the negative consequences of winter warming may be attenuated, so it will be important to consider this factor in future studies. Nonetheless, our results indicate that winter warming could negatively impact cold-adapted insects like the Antarctic midge. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL http://datadryad.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.5061/dryad.d7wm37q3k
Description Long read Genome sequencing collaboration 
Organisation Brigham Young University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have established a new collaboration with Dr Paul Frandsen (Bingham Young University, Utah) in order to undertake long read genome sequencing of our 2 key Antarctic insect species. We provided samples for sequencing and Postdoc for training.
Collaborator Contribution Hosting/Training Posdoc - Dr Monica Aquilino in PacBio technology long read sequencing and bioinformatics. Trouble-shooting sample prep.
Impact We are still undertaking genome sequence analyses
Start Year 2022
Description Project partner: ASICS Biodiversa project - Subantarctic (CROZET + KERGUELEN) 
Organisation University of Rennes 1
Country France 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution BiodivERsA is a network of national and regional funding organisations promoting pan-European research on biodiversity and ecosystem services, and offering innovative opportunities for the conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity. We have become partners in the ASICS Biodiversa project ( https://www.coldregioninvasives.com/partners) led by Prof David Renault (Rennes University). Several of the species we are studying with our NSF-NERC grant are potential Antarctic invasive species under climate change, we will contribute microclimate, sequencing and physiology data to help develop a more integrated view of the probability of non-native species becoming established in Antarctica and their ecological impact.
Collaborator Contribution This is a very large international network investigating invasive species in polar and alpine regions. We share microclimate, sequencing and physiology data to help develop a more integrated view of the probability of non-native species becoming established and their ecological impact.
Impact None as yet
Start Year 2020