Less than a week to go and final preparations are hotting up; currency for stopover in Chile, new clothes, and some treats – being away from home for long stretches makes you aware of little things taken from granted, and breaking the monotony of galley food every now and then is a welcome break (I’m taking a jar of Marmite, Cadbury cream eggs, and Fishermen’s Friends!).

With just over a week to go, I’ve organised contact routes and schedules for family and colleagues, and put personal affairs in order. Started to make lists of essential gear to pack. And need to finish marking before I head off!

Tomorrow I am visiting Roundhay School, Leeds to talk about the Antarctic and its environment. As part of my role as a STEM Ambassador I think it is important we try and inspire the next generation of students about how interesting science can be.

Antarctic mainland
Antarctic mainland

In April 2015 a group of US, UK, Canadian and Swedish researchers including myself will be heading to the Antarctic Peninsula as part of a three year investigation of the icefish—one of nature’s great curiosities.

What is special about the icefish? Icefish have a cardiovascular system unlike anything else seen in nature, with massive hearts, colourless blood and extra wide blood vessels. They are the only known vertebrates without respiratory pigments, the stuff that make your blood red — something that was previously thought essential to vertebrate life. This gives them a ghostly white colour that gives rise to their common name.

Without haemoglobin that carries oxygen around our bodies, their blood carries about ten times less oxygen than that of other vertebrates. They have survived for millions of years in the Southern Ocean because oxygen dissolves better in cold temperatures, allowing just enough oxygen to be delivered to icefish’s organs because of the extremely cold temperatures it survives in. But this comes at a cost – while happy enough swimming around at -2oC, if you put one in your domestic refrigerator it would die of heat stroke!


 An icefish larva (Credit: Uwe kils, Wikimedia Commons)

What is going to happen to the icefish? Global warming is pushing up ocean temperatures all over the globe, and the Antarctic Peninsula has risen by 3oC in the last 50 years and the West Antarctic ice sheet by more than 0.1°C/decade, making it one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet (British Antarctic Survey, http://www.antarctica.ac.uk).

Professor Stuart Egginton (University of Leeds, UK) will look at whether icefish will be able to cope with these changes. He says: “We think these wonderful fish, which are currently found in healthy numbers (and form the basis of a profitable fishery), may be facing a lethal double whammy. Their metabolism will increase in warmer seas and that will require more oxygen. At the same time, the increased temperature will mean that the amount of oxygen their blood can carry will decrease.”

Why should we care about the icefish? Of course, many species are at risk from global warming. Why should we care about icefish? Apart from the great loss that this unique species would be to the diversity of nature, describing the threat to icefish might be used as an introduction to/fascinating case study within a wider feature about the changes to Antarctic ecosystem. Icefish are seen as an excellent bioindicator for the health of the ecosystem in the Antarctic, because they represent one of the top predators in a relatively simple food web, and what happens to them will likely be replicated in other, less easily studied temperature-sensitive creatures.

The icefishes physiology and biochemistry is also of interest because it represents a group of animals that produce their own antifreeze to allow life at sub-zero temperatures, and display an unusual stress response that doesn’t reply on the same mechanisms as other animals. Studies are looking at how alternative ways of controlling the cardiovascular system are used by these animals, the consequences for cold-induced increases in numbers of mitochondria (the cell’s power stations, generating chemical fuel for all activity), and how the lack of other respiratory pigments within muscle fibres (myoglobin) may affect their capacity to deal with oxidative stress.

Find out more…

http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/brainwaves/2012/08/03/how-the-antarctic-icefish-lost-its-red-blood-cells-but-survived-anyway/

http://www.hhmi.org/bulletin/february-2012/short-films-make-evolutionary-biology-memorable

Hello and welcome to my blog…

Professor Stuart EggintonIn just over a week I will begin my trip to the Antarctic Peninsula for 3 months as part of a three year investigation of the icefish—one of nature’s great curiosities.

First of all I will start by telling you a bit about myself and my research. I am Professor Stuart Egginton, Professor of Exercise Science in the School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Leeds. I have a BSc in Zoology at Bangor, PhD in physiology at St Andrews, awarded a Fellowship to spend 2 years in Maine (USA), various post doc positions in Birmingham before receiving a DSc from there.

I enjoy travel, especially when it allows walking in remote areas and/or the opportunity to indulge in photography. Antarctica occasionally offers great opportunities for both of these activities, when weather permits, but isolation that comes from working in remote areas is helped by great pleasure derived from reading and listening to a range of musical styles.

I began research on respiratory physiology, then switched to muscle physiology studying low temperature adaptations, eventually combining these areas by exploring cardiorespiratory adaptations to extreme challenges (low temperature, hypoxia, endurance exercise). This led to my main work that concerns the regulation of angiogenesis (growth of blood vessels) in health and disease), which brings me full circle back to where I started as this is the major determinant of peripheral oxygen transport and allows modelling of how fine scale diffusion limits muscle performance.

Over the next 3 months I will keep you up to date with latest news from the Antarctic.

5 years ago colleagues working in Antarctica emailed me for some help with an experiment they were having problems with, and wanted advice on surgical techniques. Although Wilderness Medicine has been a success for isolated human communities, and despite attempted Skype conversations, telemedicine for fish was not a success!

4 years ago I met the same colleagues at a conference where we discussed the issues, and bounced around ideas for a new grant to return to the Antarctic and solve the outstanding problems.

3 years ago, after numerous rounds of emails and documents needing comments and corrections, we submitted an application to the US National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programmes for funding.

2 years ago we had an indication that, based on very positive reviewers comments and the strategic value of the research, that NSF wished to fund the work. However, scientific expeditions to remote areas are both very expensive and logistically difficult to arrange, so a final decision was some way off.

1 year ago we finally got the green light, confirming a later than usual visit for me – I have previously gone during the austral summer (our winter), but strong currents around this part of the Antarctic Peninsula slows freezing of the sea and allows access into the autumn (not so good for those with a weak stomach!).

6 months to go I ordered chemicals and other supplies needed for the experiments to be delivered to the NSF distribution base in California, as there are stringent rules about what can be shipped, how it needs to be packaged, and what route of disposal will be used.

5 month to go I got my extensive medical checks, blood screen and inoculations sorted. In remote areas all participants have to be fit enough to help each other in emergencies, and are potential blood donors so a clean bill of health is essential.

4 months to go and time to improve fitness levels, so alternate between gym and pool on work days, as I need to recover some muscle bulk lost after shoulder surgery.

3 months to go I boxed up the equipment I will be using and sent that off, hopefully to be reunited on the ship at our port of departure in Chile.

1 month to go I received notice that my flights had finally been booked, so it looks like we’re ready to roll. Just a small matter of clearing the decks here of a growing pile of urgent tasks needing to be done before departure, while coping with moving office and lab into new premises – great timing!