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Against the odds: How microbes survive in Antarctica’s harsh conditions

View of Lake Vanda in the Wright Valley, Antarctica Dry Valleys (Photo: Craig Cary)

Dr Adele Williamson will take up a position at the University of Waikato to study how microbes survive under the hostile conditions of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. She will identify the diversity of DNA repair systems present in these microbes that protects their genetic code from the extreme conditions.

Published 8 November 2018


Adele Williamson

Dr Adele Williamson (Photo: provided)

The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are one of the harshest places on earth, with little water, high UV radiation, and multiple daily cycles of freezing and thawing. Despite their apparent barren appearance, microbial life prevails within this inhospitable environment. However, these unforgiving conditions are highly damaging to the genetic code of these organisms.  DNA is critical to survival as it stores the hereditary information necessary to build and maintain an organism. These microbes must possess extremely efficient DNA repair systems to survive, though we have little understanding of these processes.

Dr Adele Williamson of the University of Waikato has been awarded a Marsden Fund Fast-Start grant to identify DNA repair enzymes from microbes in Antarctic soils. These microbes cannot be easily grown in the cushy conditions of the laboratory, so Dr Williamson will instead use computer algorithms to discover potential DNA repair enzymes within DNA sequences from the combined genetic material found in Antarctic soil samples. She will then produce these enzymes in a pure form in the laboratory to determine their overall structure, the type of DNA damage they target and the chemical reactions they perform to repair this damaged DNA.

By studying structures and reaction mechanisms of these DNA repair enzymes, Dr Williamson will help explain how life survives in one of the most extreme environments on Earth. The results may also contribute to new biotechnology tools to repair DNA, using enzymes that function in cold conditions.