Researching Microbiology in Antarctica

By Matt Jardin
(Photo courtesy of Kodi Haughn)
In the classic 1982 horror sci-fi film The Thing (as well as its 2011 prequel of the same name), researchers in Antarctica discover a killer alien with the ability to shape-shift. Doctoral student Kodi Haughn, B.S. Biological Sciences ’21, didn’t find anything quite as terrifying when she traveled there in December 2022. But what she did find might be just as revolutionary.

As part of a research team that included UAA Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Brandon Briggs, Ph.D., plus one professor and three students from Miami University in Ohio, and a sixth grade PolarTrec teacher from California, Haughn spent a month tent camping across Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys researching microbial ecology.

Haughn was studying the chemical cycling of microbes in a uniquely isolated natural environment devoid of competing flora and fauna. It’s the closest thing to a controlled laboratory setting in the real world.

“When you’re studying microbes in the environment, typically there’s this whole ecosystem of plants and animals. But Antarctica is one of the very few places on our planet where microbes dominate the ecosystem,” said Haughn. “All the chemical cycling that’s happening, all the carbon that’s being transformed, it’s all microbially driven.”

Chemical cycling describes the processes in which chemicals are cycled between different compounds in various states, like how water evaporates into the air, forms into clouds and precipitates back to Earth as rain or snow before evaporating again. Other commonly taught chemical cycling processes include the oxygen and carbon cycles.

Born and raised in Hawaii, Haughn grew up loving the ocean. This affinity sparked her particular interest in the sulfur cycle, which covers how sulfur is burned off of fossil fuels and ends up in the atmosphere, returning as acid rain to the detriment of our oceans, soils and forests.

To study the sulfur cycle in microbes on this once-in-a-lifetime expedition, Haughn and a team drilled three to six meters through permanent ice into Lake Bonney and Lake Fryxell to collect water from the lakes. Once the holes were drilled and the samples collected, the team would trek back to camp (via ATV if they were lucky, hiking if they weren’t), where they would filter the water and preserve it for shipping back to their respective labs.

Now back in Anchorage, Haughn is looking forward to spending her summer in the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building on campus poring over her samples. Specifically, she plans to use isotopes to flag and trace individual microbes in order to determine what each one is responsible for in the chemical cycling process.

“Microbes exist and function as a community and they all work together or against one another. What I want to know is what microbes are present that could explain functions that we assume are happening,” said Haughn. “Once we figure out the who and connect it to the what, we can start to ask better questions about the how.”

Looking ahead, the ability to pinpoint exactly what actions specific microbes are responsible for in any chemical cycling has the potential to aid in bioremediation efforts — the process in which a biological system is used to remove pollutants. For instance, microbes could theoretically be used to remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, or contamination from waste water.

Furthermore, these applications may even be able to tell us something about life among the stars, as environments home to microbes on Earth closely resemble environments on other planets believed to have the potential to sustain life.

All of this would be an added bonus for Haughn, who returned to school to study biological sciences in order to help the planet she calls home and preserve it for future generations.

”Growing up in Hawaii allowed me to appreciate our planet. Living in Alaska helped me realize that what I love about this planet is so vulnerable,” said Haughn. “Anybody living here that hikes has probably witnessed the Portage or Matanuska glaciers recede super far back in just a single-digit number of years, and seeing that made me want to do something.”

See more of Kodi Haughn’s microbial research in Green & Gold News