Antarctic Microbes Could Help Unlock Climate Mysteries

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Argentinian-Chilean microbiologist Julieta Orlando is studying the past, present and future of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic biodiversity, including the microorganisms that could help us understand the impact of climate change on these ecosystems.

Orlando, who is an associate professor at the Universidad de Chile and Deputy Director of the Millennium Institute BASE (Biodiversity of Antarctic and Subantarctic Ecosystems), says that learning about the distribution patterns of microorganisms, their interactions with other living things, their metabolic activities and how all these characteristics are affected by environmental changes is essential to the overall understanding the functioning of ecosystems.

“For example, microorganisms could contribute to enhancing or mitigating climate change due to their role in the emission and consumption of potent greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane,” Orlando says, adding that despite this, including microorganisms as part of biodiversity studies is not as common as it should be.

“Contributing to a unified view of the study of biodiversity, regardless of the size of the individuals, will allow us to make more robust conservation proposals to face current and future change scenarios,” she says.

Inspired by Dolly the Sheep

Orlando grew up in Argentina but has lived almost half her life in Chile and is a dual citizen of the two countries.

She says that towards the end of her high school education, the birth of the first mammal cloned from an adult cell, Dolly the Sheep, was momentous news worldwide.

“Science has always caught my attention, and that historical event made me decide to study something related to genetics at university,” Orlando says, “However, there was no genetics as a university degree in the city where I lived then.”

She would go on to study microbiology close to home, hoping to later focus on genetics at a later point.

“My training at the Universidad Nacional de Río Cuarto in Argentina opened up a world unknown to me about these tiny beings, and I was immediately fascinated by this part of biodiversity, which many times is unknown,” she says, “Since I had the opportunity to work in a lab with microorganisms, I knew that microbiology research was what I wanted to do.”

She would go on to cross the Andes mountain range to complete her doctoral studies at the Universidad de Chile, thanks to a German scholarship (DAAD).

Orlando says that an a context marked by climate change, developing Antarctic and sub-Antarctic science is essential and scientists from the Global South play a vital role.

“Being scientists from the Global South gives us many advantages, such as logistical facilities due to closer access to the study sites that are fundamental to understanding global change,” she says, “However, it also gives us unique perspectives due to the knowledge of the local particularities only reachable by living in the southernmost areas of our planet.”

Another Antarctic Researcher from the Global South is Colombian geoscientist Adriana Ariza-Pardo who is delving into the origins of a sunken, active volcano that also serves as a port for researchers visiting Antartica.

MORE FROM FORBESUnlocking The Mysteries Of An Antarctic Volcano

“My goal is to understand the beginnings of the volcano, from the type of crust from which it emerges, the tectonic plates involved in its formation process, and to determine its age by studying the oldest eruptions of the volcano,” Ariza-Pardo says.

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