Finding Feisty Fungi in Antarctica

In a place where no one believed they existed–-treeless Antartica–wood fungi are feasting on polar exploration relics

Explorer Robert Scott built a hut at Cape Evans during his 1910-1913 expedition; all five members of his team perished. (Galen Rowell / Corbis)
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Blanchette and his team have traveled to Antarctica each of the past nine years to collect hut samples and test ways of preserving them. Back in the lab, the researchers put bits of infected wood into petri dishes filled with a nutrient-rich gel that coaxes the fungi out of the wood and encourages growth.

Blanchette then transplanted the growing samples onto pieces of pine, birch and spruce—woods used in the Antarctic huts—to see if the lab wood would similarly decay. Then, comparing DNA from the Antarctic samples of fungi with that of known species, Blanchette and his team deduced they had found three new species. He will carry out additional taxonomic study to make sure.

In any event, Blanchette says he's delighted to be studying some "really tough fungi," capable of eking out an existence in one of the planet's most inhospitable environments. He speculates the fungi lived off penguin guano, moss, lichen and material in the soil until the explorers arrived and provided a veritable feast—the first wood Antarctica had seen in eons.

Blanchette and his team have advised the Antarctic Heritage Trust about protecting the huts. Because fungi need moisture, the researchers recommended clearing out a century's worth of accumulated ice under Shackleton's hut (revealing stores of whiskey in the process) and removing 100 tons of snow and ice that accumulate annually behind Scott's hut at Cape Evans.

Blanchette, meanwhile, made another observation: one species of Antarctic fungus appears to be feasting on petroleum spilled from leaky fuel containers that Scott left behind at Cape Evans. If so, Blanchette speculates that the fungus—or enzymes extracted from it—could be put to work digesting petroleum spills.

That's what Blanchette says he loves about his work—the unexpected developments and the surprising resilience of life. No matter the environment, he says, "we're always finding great fungi."

Emily Stone is a Chicago-based writer who spent two summers in Antarctica.


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