A Closer Look at Crary

Because I very much wanted to catch the tour of Crary Lab at 14:00, I only got about 6 hours of sleep today which sucks since my body is really starting to whine about the nonstop 10 hour days but alas, all in support of science, right? So Crary, which I think I’ve mentioned before, is where most of the station-based research is conducted and there’s some really interesting stuff being studied here – picture my inner geek clapping with glee. Actually, my outer geek was pretty much doing that too. Researchers are invited to give lectures twice a week but they’re almost always at 20:00 which is inevitably a no-go for us Midrats so I’ve started contacting a few of the scientists to see if they wouldn’t mind reprising their lectures at a “Coffee Talk” of sorts in the mornings. Happily, most of them have been amenable to the idea so far, so we’ll see how that goes.

But for now, I was content to wander the halls and look at the project posters and learn a little from our guide about the different seal skulls – below are two different Weddell seal skulls. The long, sharp teeth at the very forefront of the mouth are actually not for predation as much as they are for poking holes in the ice. You can see on the elderly seal that the teeth are worn down and apparently, that’s how most Weddells die of “old age”: they simply can’t break through the ice anymore and they drown.

A baby Weddell’s skull

Elderly Weddell seal skull

In the “aquarium”, I spoke with two women who are examining how Antarctic notothenioid fish produce a protein that binds with ice crystals in the blood. This inhibits further growth of the ice crystals, thus preventing the fish from freezing to death in waters that reach temperatures of -1.9ºc (while water normally freezes at 0ºC, the salt content lowers the Southern Ocean’s freezing point to about -2ºC). Below you can see them taking a sample from the “anesthetized” fish, then adding a tag to mark the ones they sampled today. While the team’s research doesn’t extend to applications for their findings, one of the women I talked with did mention that her favorite application to date has been in ice cream. Ice cream manufacturers extract the protein from the fish, use yeast to manufacture it on a large scale, and then add it to their ice cream to prevent large crystals from forming during long periods of freezer storage, thus ruining the lovely texture of the ice cream. Come on! How cool is that?!

Also in the “aquarium” is an ongoing experiment – I think in their second or third year now – to look at how the acidification of the oceans affects the development of organisms with calcified structures, like sea urchins. The thought is that as the oceans’ pH becomes more acidic, the development of calcified structures like spines and shells (for mollusks) will become inhibited. So the research team is incubating thousands and thousands of urchins in different buckets that mimic different ocean acidity levels and tracking their development into adulthood.

I have to say, what tickled me the most about this experiment is how all the adult urchins – the donors for the gametes – have little “hats” of algae. The research assistant in the lab says it’s not camouflage but actually because the algae has a compound in it that repels one of their predators. Huh. I suppose if someone was covered in poison ivy, I probably wouldn’t go near them even if they were offering me peanut butter pie.

Urchins in “hats”!

There were a bunch of other really interesting-looking projects, too: a “petting tank” in the aquarium, the “riot-proof” camera monitoring the eruptions of Mt Erebus (our “hot-headed” neighbor), a neutrino detector used for aiming our telescopes, and a study of the effects of climate and ecosystem change on penguin populations, to name a few. I’m looking forward to arranging the “Coffee Talks” and hearing more about the seriously cool science going on down here!

After the tour, I came back to my dorm and put some laundry on – I LOVE that I don’t have to count quarters anymore! – and then popped into the library to write some postcards and write all of this. Now I’d best be off to get some “breakfast” – or “deakfast” as we call it – before work tonight!

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One response to “A Closer Look at Crary

  1. Good work with the science! Keep it coming! And yes, fish anti-freeze in ice cream is cool … I think we’ve used some other enzymes in the lab based on their low-temp preferences, but nothing’s coming to me right now.

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