Bacteria samples collected in Antarctica a century ago nearly identical to present day samples

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition ship Discovery alongside Antartica’s Great Ice Barrier.

A pair of researchers with the Natural History Museum of London and the University of Waikato have found that bacteria living in a part of Antarctica have not changed much over the past century.

In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Anne Jungblut and Ian Hawes describe how they compared the DNA of cyanobacterial mats collected during Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition from 1901 to 1904 with modern specimens and what they found.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott was an officer in the British Royal Navy with an inclination for exploration. He led two expeditions in the Antarctic: The first was called the Discovery Expedition, the second was the Terra Nova Expedition. Falcon died during his return from the second expedition, but his efforts led to the discovery that Antarctica was once covered by forest—they also provided plant specimens for study by scientists back in England. One specimen was the cyanobacterial mat—the main kind of vegetation covering the area where Falcon had based his camp.

Once studied, the mats were pressed between sheets of paper and stored at the Natural History Museum. In this new effort, the researchers conducted a DNA analysis of the bacteria in the mats. Then they arranged to have researchers currently carrying out science experiments in nearly the same area in Antarctica collect new samples for study. After conducting a DNA analysis of the new samples, the results were compared with those from over a century ago. The researchers report that they found very little difference between the two.

The sameness of the bacteria samples came as a surprise to the researchers because they believed that it was likely that bacteria in Antarctica evolved as temperatures rose, or new species would have invaded. That neither has happened has caused the researchers to suggest that some organisms in Antarctica might be more resilient than expected.