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December 21, 2004 | Michael Smart | Contact Via Email
BYU undergrad spends holidays sampling Antarctic worms

While the North Pole may be the center of action each Christmas, one Brigham Young University student is spending the holidays near the South Pole, as far away from Santa as he could possibly be. John Chaston, a senior from Somersworth, N.H., majoring in microbiology, left December 18 for an Antarctic research station and is spending the holidays as part of a team studying the unique environment and gathering ecological data.

"I can't believe it," Chaston said. "I never thought I'd ever spend Christmas vacation in Antarctica. Even though I'll be away from home for a while, this is such a great opportunity to do some research and be a member of a team of scientists trying to answer a lot of important questions."

Chaston will join a group of researchers from BYU, Dartmouth and Colorado State studying geology and ecology at the South Pole. A large portion of their time will be spent traveling to different sites and collecting soil and bacteria samples. In the lab, Chaston will assist in extracting DNA from the bacteria to prepare it for shipping to the United States. After Christmas, Byron Adams, assistant professor of microbiology at BYU and the a biologist on the research team, will join Chaston in Antarctica.

"Antarctica has such a rare environment," said Adams. "It's literally unlike any other place on the earth. In a way, studying in Antarctica is traveling back in time, giving you a look at life in slow motion. That's why it's an extremely useful place to look at how life has developed, since changes take place at a much slower rate."

While most of Antarctica is covered by vast ice sheets, a few uncovered spots form a dry but super-cold desert at the bottom of the world. Plant and animal life are extremely limited and even tiny micro-organisms like bacteria have a difficult time surviving the harsh climate. But it is precisely these environmental restraints that give scientists a much clearer window into how soil composition directly affects evolutionary development.

Chaston has his own research project underway back in Provo that focuses on exploiting the symbiotic relationship between a special type of bacterium and an extremely small roundworm called a nematode, which act together as a biological pesticide. A nematode will worm its way into an insect's body and then vomit up the bacteria it carries in its bowels. The bacteria attack the insect by producing lethal poisons that not only kill the bugs but also give them an eerie green glow. Once the insect is dead, the nematode begins to reproduce, and before leaving the insect's body, the baby nematodes will scoop up some of the bacteria to carry into another insect host. Chaston believes that the nematodes may be able to control the bacteria directly by secreting chemicals that turn their poison-making component on or off.

"The nematodes are basically a living syringe," Chaston said. "They're the delivery vehicle for the bacteria. If we were to really figure out this relationship, the potential is that we could develop a completely natural pesticide. Instead of spraying crops with tons and tons of chemicals to kill insects, we could just use nematodes. But you can't apply that industrial element until you understand what's really going on."

While in Antarctica, Chaston is helping Adams on a related but different project.

Since the research team will have only a limited amount of time to spend in Antarctica, Christmas celebrations will be short. Typically, the researchers will make a rare call home and then have a brief Christmas party with a gift exchange. Chaston brought some BYU key chains to give away and spread some yuletide cheer.

"It's hard to be away from home for the holidays," Chaston said. "But when you look at the opportunity to go out into the field and do serious scientific research, it's a small price to pay. You've got to do your lab work, but the chance to go to Antarctica to advance your own personal research may only come along once."

Writer: Brad Jensen