U plant pathology professor’s research investigates wood decay

Professor Bob Blanchette will speak about his research at a “Classes Without Quizzes” event on Saturday.

Emily Ayshford

When Robert Scott and his crew traveled to Antarctica more than a century ago, they probably did not think their wooden huts would become international heritage sites.

But Arctic conditions and decay from fungi have slowly deteriorated the turn-of-the-century structures.

As a result, University plant pathology professor Bob Blanchette was called in to determine why the wood is decaying and what can be done to preserve the historical huts.

Blanchette will talk about his research Saturday at the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences’ “Classes Without Quizzes.”

The seminar, which is open to students and the public, showcases current college research.

Explorers whose boats were in danger of freezing in the ice quickly left the three huts, built between 1901 and 1911. Books, papers, clothes and even canned goods were left behind.

“They’re like they left yesterday,” said Benjamin Held, a University scientist who works with Blanchette.

Blanchette and other researchers have studied the huts’ wood for five years under a National Science Foundation grant, and Blanchette has traveled to Antarctica five times to retrieve wood samples.

He and fellow researchers have found what they believe are new fungi species not found anywhere else. The fungi grow slowly because they stay dormant for most of the continent’s harsh winter.

He said little information has previously been available about fungi on the continent.

“It provides us information about organisms in Antarctica,” he said.

By determining the type of decay present at the huts, Blanchette said he will help determine the best means of preservation. He and fellow researchers are working with the Antarctic Heritage Trust to ensure the huts’ conservation.

“You feel like you’re able to contribute to what happens to these things,” Held said.

Blanchette has previously studied wood decay for preservation purposes at King Midas’ tomb in Turkey, Chacoan houses in New Mexico and at Thomas Edison’s historic laboratory.

Held said he holds Blanchette and his work in high regard.

“I would say Bob is one of the leading researchers in the field as far as wood decay,” he said.

Other sessions at Saturday’s seminar will deal with world hunger, renewable power, gardening, food safety and obesity.