Thursday, October 28, 2004

Definitely Mainbody

It’s almost November and the Mainbody season is under way and in full force. McMurdo Station is filling with people, sometimes at a disturbing rate. The population of the town is somewhere in the 900s. The sky-equipped C-130 Hercules planes have arrived from Scotia, NY and started taking people to the South Pole station. These are the specialized planes that have skis for landing gear, allowing them to use the ice runways we have here at McMurdo and at the South Pole station. The last sunset was about 1 week ago. The next sunset will be at 12:38am.....
on the 21st of February 2005.

The research is going well. Dr. Robert Maxson (from the University of Southern California, Health Sciences campus) joined our research group a couple of weeks ago. He and I have been spending a lot of our energy trying to understand how developing forms of Antarctic echinoderms regulate ribonucleic acid (RNA). Very quickly, RNA is the molecule that translates an animal’s genetic information (DNA) into its final product, protein. The flow of genetic information is DNA to RNA (process called transcription) and then RNA to protein (process called translation). Anyway, Rob and I are interested in how quickly RNA is being synthesized and degraded in early life stages of animals in Antarctica. So far there has been a lot of trouble-shooting, trying to find accurate ways to isolate and quantify the amount and different types of RNA in these animals. By understanding the RNA of these animals we hope to understand the potentially unique way in which these organisms tolerate (and actually thrive) in this environment, which is the coldest marine environment on planet Earth. Because the process of translating genetic information is so important (DNA, for the most part is only a ‘blue print’, it is the protein that is encoded by DNA that is the ‘working machine’ of an organism), one of the goals of my research is to understand the energetic cost of turning DNA into protein. It is a highly energy consuming process. To put this in perspective, somewhere between one fifth to one half of the energy your body spends during a day is used up for the sole purpose of turning DNA into protein (through transcription and translation). This means that if you are on a diet where you are neither gaining nor losing weight, 20 to 50% of your caloric intake is used to fuel these processes. So for animals living in the nutrient poor and very cold environment of Antarctica, evolutionary changes that allow for any increase in efficiency of these processes would be highly beneficial. As biologists, we are interested in seeing 1) if such ‘adaptations’ exist and, 2) if they do exist, what parts of these highly complex processes can be ‘tweaked’ to result in increased energy efficiency. Such research allows biologist to understand what rules in living organisms are fixed (they can’t be changed) and what rules can be ‘bent’ and allow an organism to adapt to its particular environment.

So anyway….

In a couple of days Dr. Maxson will be leaving us to go back to Los Angeles (he’s got his own lab that he runs at USC where he studies the interaction between gene regulation and development). When he leaves my boss from USC, Donal Manahan, will be arriving. He’ll spend about a month with us in McMurdo and help out with different aspects of the research.

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