Antarctic Fungi

Antarctic Fungi

Project leader: Prof Roberta Farrell

A dedicated site for K021 can be found at

History of the project:
K021’s research has principally focused on Antarctic fungi, both at the century-old historic huts of the Heroic Period of exploration in the Ross Dependency 1898-1917 and fungi in pristine terrestrial locations in the Ross Dependency and by collaboration elsewhere in the Antarctic and Arctic. The research addresses understanding the diversity and mechanisms of cold adaptation and proliferation of Antarctic fungi, using a multidisciplinary approach including microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, molecular biology, geochemistry, geomorphology & bio-geography; and using molecular techniques to compare the identified fungi of pristine sites and introduced historic huts/artifacts, characterizing their activities and main roles in these environments. The research is international, involving scientists from New Zealand, USA, Hong Kong, South Africa and United Kingdom.

K021 at Cape Evans
K021 Event - 2004
K021 at McKelvey Valley
P.I. Roberta Farrell
Mt Erebus behind Nimrod Hut, of the British Antarctic (Nimrod) expedition 1907-1909 led by Ernest Shackleton.

Where the idea came from: During the season of 1996/1997, Professor Farrell joined K023, the >15 year project initiated by Professors Daniel and Morgan of the Thermophile Research Unit at University of Waikato. The field event focused that year on Mount Erebus and Professor Farrell was looking for evidence of resin degrading microbes on Tramway Ridge, that might have ancestors in microbes that existed when Antarctica was covered with forests. While on the Ice, after a visit to Discovery Hut, Roberta talked at the Scott Base cafeteria with Paul Chaplin, then CEO of Antarctic Heritage Trust, and David Harrowfield, well known historian, author and winner of 2010 Polar Medal about the conservation of the huts. Roberta asked what were the causes of deterioration, and Paul and David responded that no one had ever studied them. Roberta asked the question: “How can you conserve when you don’t know the problems?” This started Event K021’s research, studying the non-biological and biological deterioration of the historic huts. After finding unusual fungi degrading the wood, the next question was, “were they introduced or indigenous?”, leading to studies of the pristine environments of Antarctica. Roberta invited Professor Robert Blanchette of University of Minnesota and his team to join in the research – Bob and his team have studied mycology and deterioration of King Midas’ tomb, Egyptian pyramids, Canadian Northwest Coast totem poles, the Ancient Pueblo Peoples houses of Chaco Canyon and most recently the Forbidden Kingdom in Beijing.

How long it has been running: Fifteen years, since January 1997

How many person days total have been devoted to it: ~1386 person days (11 seasons, times 3 weeks average times 6 people per event.)

For the past fifteen years, a joint scientific collaboration has led the world in isolating and understanding Antarctic fungi from pristine and human-impacted sites, revealing amazing biodiversity of both indigenous and introduced fungal microorganisms and demonstrating their biochemical limits for life, including primary and secondary metabolism and dispersement mechanisms. We have demonstrated that the fungi have adapted and are proliferating and spreading by aerial dispersal in the environment, an important model for biosecurity concerns of introduced microbes to Antarctica. In addition, the collaboration has evaluated the deterioration of the Historic Huts and artefacts of Ross Island and their environs. The research collaboration has been instrumental in helping to formulate conservation plans to preserve the remnants of the ‘Heroic Era’ of exploration, contributing significantly to the aims and objectives of Antarctic Heritage Trust (AHT) in close cooperation with their assembled international team including conservators, archaeologists, scientists, architects and museum curators. The research has had important contributions also from enzymologists from University of Bath, United Kingdom, and extremophile microbiologists from University of Hong Kong and extended its research in 2007 to the first culture-independent survey of multi-domain microbial biodiversity of the coldest desert on Earth18, specifically McKelvey Valley in the Dry Valleys. This research has been proven as a successful collaboration and was sited in the publication highlighting international collaborations in Antarctica, Antarctic Partners: 50 Years of New Zealand and United States Cooperation in Antarctica, 1957-2007.

The two most important findings have been as follows:

1. First report of wood decay in Antarctica and its discovery suggested the harsh and extreme environmental conditions found in Antarctica are favorable only for decay caused by soft rot fungi. Molecular analysis of the isolated fungi, compared with decay isolates from around the globe, suggested that these species are endemic to Antarctica, and we have hypothesised that they are a link to the antarctic fossil records of saprohytic terrestrial fossil fungi.

2. The first culture-independent survey of multi-domain microbial biodiversity of the coldest desert on Earth, specifically McKelvey Valley in the Dry Valleys. In 2010 Nature Asia-Pacific highlights PNAS publication ‘Highly specialized microbial diversity in hyper-arid polar desert’; IMBN/article.php?id=362

Future of the project:
The 2011/2012 season has key goals both in terms of mycology and understanding the context of the historic sites by high definition laser scanning, as well as use of the technology for biological systems.

Mycology: Since Cadophora sp. were found in soils in areas away from high human impact and because of the high ITS region genetic diversity of Antarctic, it is possible that these isolates may be native Antarctic saprophytes. Key research in the future will be to trace the emergence of the Cadophora species in Antarctica on a geological timescale – this would both provide for a better understanding of the past and a projection of the survival and proliferation of this species in Antarctica in the future. Most importantly, it may demonstrate a link between the saprophytic Cadophora species currently isolated in Antarctic soils and organic substrates and the terrestrial saprophytic fossil fungi proposed by Taylor and White (1989).

High Definition Laser Scanning:
In January 2010, Antarctica NZ Event K021 broke new ground in Antarctic research by using highly sophisticated 3D laser and light scanning technologies to image a range of man-made and physical structures to a resolution never before achieved in this environment. Russell Gibb and Dan McCurdy brought with them two high-end scanning facilities, on loan from the manufacturers and together valued at around $NZ 500,000. The Leica 6100 phase-based laser scanner is capable of generating 360o images on a radius of more than 50m to a resolution of a few mm. Each scan generates a ‘point cloud’ of over 20 million data points, and multiple scans can be assembled to generate high resolution multidirectional 3D images. This unit is most applicable for macroscopic structures (such as buildings) but can be applied to natural geological and even biological forms.
The second unit, a Brueckmann structured light scanner, is designed to provide ultra-high resolution 3D images of small areas, where a surface or object of 10-20cm dimensions can be scanned to an accuracy of around 0.1 micron resolution (a micron is a 1000th of a mm). For the biologists, the most exciting potential lies in the ultra-high resolution scanning capacity of the Brueckmann structured light scanner. Antarctic ‘plants’ (mosses, lichens, cyanobacteria and fungi) grow very slowly in the extremes of the Antarctic climate. A limited amount of growth data exist, most commonly from annual photography of distinct structures such as crustose lichens. The Brueckmann offers a real opportunity to obtain, for the first time, growth data over much shorter periods (weeks, or even days or hours) because it is capable of visualising changes of less than a micron . By linking repeated scans to microenvironmental data (temperature, humidity, light intensity, etc) such short-term growth analysis will allow us to link growth rates directly to environmental changes, which will not only tell us which of these parameters is most important in controlling growth, but will also allow us to make sensible, quantitative estimates of the effects of future climate change.

Previous scientific data capture for K021 has generally focused on investigation at the micron level. However, the effects of biological and non-biological deterioration can and should be measured across a range of scales, thus permitting a broader range of analytical, practical
and interpretative potential. High definition laser scanning of Terra Nova Hut at Cape Evans, Nimrod hut at Cape Royds and Discovery Hut at Hut Point is being integrated to support cross-disciplinary studies. Dissemination of this data affords scope for a broad spectrum of project partners with disparate needs to undertake specific analysis or interpretation. These include archaeologists, conservation architects, conservators, and microbiologists.

Historic-related research in 2012 will focus on Nimrod Hut, Discovery Hut and Memorial Cross on top of Observation Hill, which has serious damage and the names of the historic explorers whose lives were lost in Scott’s return journey from the South Pole and whose names were carved into the Cross are almost obliterated – the scanning will allow for preservation of the image of the Cross prior to conservation measures.

In addition, K021 will do research at Cape Crozier, site of the stone igloo of “The Worst Journey of the World”.

A list of other researchers involved:

Year Name Organisation Role
00/01, 01/02, 02/03, 03/04, 05/06, 07/08, 11/12 Roberta Farrell, University of Waikato, PI
00/01, 01/02, 02/03 Benjamin Held, University of Minnesota, International Collaborator; PhD student
03/04, 05/06, 07/08 Brett Arenz, University of Minnesota, International Collaborator; PhD student
03/04 Joanne Thwaites, University of Waikato, PhD student
00/01, 01/02, 03/04, 05/06, 07/08 Joel Jurgens, University of Minnesota And University of Waikato, International Collaborator And PhD student
05/06 Lisa Robson, University of Waikato, PhD student
07/08 Maggie Lau Chui Yim, University of Hong Kong, International Collaborator
01/02 Margaret Auger, University of Waikato, Research Technician
00/01, 11/12 Michael J Danson, University of Bath, International Collaborator
00/01, 01/02, 02/03, 03/04, 05/06 Robert Blanchette, University of Minnesota, International Collaborator
02/03 Ron Ronimus, University of Waikato, Postdoctoral Fellow
01/02 Ryuji Minasaki, University of Waikato, MSc Student
01/02, 02/03, 03/04, 05/06 Shona Duncan, University of Waikato, PhD Student
07/08 Steve Pointing, University of Hong Kong, International Collaborator
10/11 Donald Cowan, University of Western Cape, International Collaborator
10/11 Dominique Anderson, University of Western Cape, Student
10/11, 11/12 Adam Wild, Archifact Private company, architect conservator
10/11, 11/12 Russell Gibb Geometria, Private company, surveyor
10/11, 11/12 Daniel McCurdy, Geometria Private company, surveyor
10/11 Donna Lacap, University of Hong Kong, International Collaborator
11/12 Yuki Chan, University of Hong Kong, International Collaborator