Fire and Ice: Life in Extreme Environments

8 August 2019

Extreme environments, such as those found in Antarctica and geothermal environments around the world, were previously thought to be devoid of life. However, they are in fact home to a huge diversity of microbial life, including bacteria and archaea that have evolved to life at these extremes.

The attraction of studying micro-organisms in extreme environments for Professor Ian McDonald, is that they are the most closely related organisms to those at the beginning of life on Earth. Also, these extreme environments don’t support plants or animals, making it much easier to study the ecology of microbial life in these locations.

Professor Ian McDonald will explain how extreme environments such as Antarctica really are in his upcoming lecture in the University of Waikato Hamilton Public Lecture Series event on Tuesday 20 August.

He will also discuss how microbial life may only receive three to four months of sunlight a year in Antarctica, and how areas like the Dry Valleys (close to NZ’s Scott Base) are drier than hot deserts, with no rain and snow that doesn’t melt but sublimates, disappearing into the air.

Focusing on soil environments in Antarctica, Professor McDonald has been researching Mt Erebus, an active volcano, which allows study of both very hot and cold environments, dominated by microbes.

“Mountains are notoriously changeable, so Mt Erebus has its own climate that is very different to Scott Base, where weather can change quickly – the coldest temperature we recorded in the summer was -50 degrees Celsius,” he says.

“It’s fascinating to study as there are high temperature soils dotted all over the mountain.”

In this research DNA is taken from environmental samples to study the diversity of all life present, using genes or DNA sequences which are present in all organisms.

Professor McDonald first went to Antarctica 11 years ago, and has since travelled there 15 times to study the diversity of microbial life that exists there. To support this research, he has received funding from Marsden grants, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Antarctica New Zealand, and has recently received another Marsden grant to continue his work on Mt Erebus in Antarctica.

Professor McDonald has also worked in New Zealand environments, looking at 1,000 hot pools in the Taupo Volcanic Zone.

He joined the University of Waikato in 2004, having previously worked and studied in the UK, undertaking his PhD in microbiology at Liverpool University, and in a research facility at Porton Down, Salisbury, looking into thermophilic organisms.

Following this, Professor McDonald moved to Warwick University, where he worked as a postdoctoral researcher for 11 years studying methane-oxidising bacteria, with a prestigious research fellowship for the last five of those years.

Professor McDonald’s lecture, Fire and Ice: Life in Extreme Environments, takes place on Tuesday 20 August at 5:45pm in the Academy of Performing Arts at the University of Waikato.

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