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Byron Adams, BYU
BYU's Byron Adams is one of the lead biologists on a team studying microorganisms in penguin country.

PROVO — This Christmas, one Brigham Young University student is spending the holidays as far away from Santa as possible.

John Chaston, a senior studying microbiology, is at the South Pole.

Chaston is no Scrooge — he's part of a group of researchers from BYU, Dartmouth and Colorado State University studying soil biology and ecology in the dry valleys of the Antarctic, not far from the South Pole.

Their goal is to see how soil responds to environmental change.

"Down there the ecosystem is really simple," says Byron Adams, assistant professor of microbiology at BYU and one of the lead biologists on the research team. "There are no land plants or animals and no human environmental impact. It's sort of like a big lab."

While most of Antarctica is covered by vast ice sheets — 2 miles thick at the South Pole — a few uncovered pockets of land form a dry but frigid desert on the bottom of the world.

By analyzing how the microscopic organisms in soil there respond to heat, water and other factors, the research team hopes to be able to determine how soils in agricultural areas will be affected by global warming.

"We're undergoing a period of climate change and that could have big impacts on agriculture," Adams says. "Organisms in the soil determine how plants grow. We want to know how global warming will affect these organisms."

Adams' team will spend the bulk of its time gathering soil and bacteria samples from the cold desert valleys. The Transantarctic Range shields about 4 percent of the continent from ice sheets and precipitation, keeping valleys at the base of the mountain dry.

The gathered samples will then be taken by helicopter to a lab at McMurdo Station, a small college-type campus, where Chaston will help extract DNA from bacteria and microscopic organisms and prepare it for shipping to the United States for further analysis.

"Antarctica is such a rare environment," Adams said. "It's literally unlike any other place on the Earth. In a way, studying in Antarctica is traveling back in time, giving you a look at life in slow motion."

"That's why it's an extremely useful place to look at how life has developed, since changes take place at a much slower rate."

Adams will leave for Antarctica the day after Christmas, his third trip there. He describes the continent as "stunningly beautiful." Because it is summer there, and the sun never goes down, he says it is warmer there now than in Utah.

Researchers stay in the dorms at McMurdo Station or in huts in the field. Sometimes they sleep in tents.

Because the 10-member research team's time in the Antarctic is limited, Christmas celebrations will be short. They may make a rare call home and then have a brief party and gift exchange. Chaston brought some BYU key chains to give away.

"It's hard to be away from home for the holidays," he said. "But when you look at the opportunity to go out into the field and do serious scientific research, it's a small price to pay."

E-mail: [email protected]