Biology professor studies bacteria in Antarctic station

There were more than 300 applicants for this year’s Antarctic biology course.

Jeannine Aquino

Imagine a place where the snow is but a light blanket covering the ground and where the sun hasn’t disappeared across the horizon for months.

While many Minnesotans might find such a place too good to be true, a BioTechnology Institute assistant professor can honestly say he’s been there.

Jeffrey Gralnick, an assistant professor in the department of microbiology, has returned to the University after a monthlong stay in Antarctica. Gralnick was one of 21 people chosen by the National Science Foundation to study integrative biology and the adaptation of Antarctic marine organisms.

“It’s a great opportunity for him as a beginning professor,” said BioTechnology Institute Director Ken Valentas. “It’s a broadening experience for him.”

Each year the foundation opens its facilities in McMurdo Station on Ross Island to a select number of graduate students, post-doctorate level researchers and junior faculty members, according to a National Science Foundation Web site. McMurdo is the largest U.S. scientific station in Antarctica and is the site of the Albert P. Crary Science and Engineering Center, a state-of-the-art laboratory complex.

Gralnick said there were more than 300 applicants for this year’s Antarctic biology course. While a majority of those selected are from the United States, a National Science Foundation news release stated that countries such as the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Canada and the Netherlands also were represented.

Gralnick said he decided to apply for the program because he was interested in furthering his research on Shewanella, a type of bacterium found throughout the world in aquatic environments. He wanted to study a particular strain of bacterium called Shewanella frigidimarina.

“Shewanella can breathe oxygen like we can,” he said. “But they can breathe a lot of insoluble minerals, like rocks, as well.”

Gralick said he is interested in what exactly the Shewanella strain is breathing in Antarctica to allow it to survive in colder weather.

“My interest is less in physical ” how it works,” he said, “but more molecular ” what genes are required for the process to work.”

Gralnick arrived at McMurdo Station on Jan. 6. Traveling for about 24 hours, Gralnick passed through Los Angeles and New Zealand before arriving in Antarctica.

Gralnick described his home base as a “small city.” There were three bars, a two-lane bowling alley and a “pastry chef who made good desserts,” he said.

“It doesn’t feel like you’re in Antarctica when you’re in McMurdo Station, except that it’s always light,” Gralnick said, referring to Antarctica’s 24-hour daylight in the summer, which lasts from October to February.

However, Gralnick said, once McMurdo Station is no longer in sight, it tends to feel more like Antarctica.

“There’s ice and a lot of white,” he said. “That’s pretty much it.”

In a weekly blog posted on a BioTechnology Institute Web site, Gralnick said he was successful in isolating Shewanella from his cultures.

He was excited that the first of the five bacteria he eventually found were Schewanella.

“That was just lucky,” he said.

Gralnick has since brought the samples to the University and is conducting tests.

Helping him is first-year microbiology, immunology and cancer biology graduate student David Sukovich.

“The plan is for me, using these transposable elements or pieces of DNA, to insert it in the genome and see if I can change its ability to grow in certain colder environments,” he said.

Gralnick looks fondly on his experience.

“It was a lot of work,” he said, “but definitely worth it.”