Chief Science Correspondent
When I talk about my research on the Antarctic notothenioids, one of the questions I am asked is "Why?" Many have questioned why I would ever consider venturing to such a harsh environment. Others seem puzzled why anyone would care about these fish that few will ever even hear of, let alone see.
There is an expectation in our culture that science should be applicable to the real world. Most often, this translates to medical research. Earlier this year, two politicians released an article listing NSF-funded projects - real research - that they believed to be laughably ridiculous because the work was not directly applicable to medicine or technology.
A few years ago, a fellow scientist took a dig at me for studying "a random protein that nobody really cares about." And it's true, in sense: I'll most likely never find the cure for AIDS or cancer. That doesn't mean my research can't be valuable, or potentially yield a finding that is beneficial to society.
Furthermore, the hemoglobinless Antarctic icefishes have been studied as a so-called "natural knockout." Work on these species has been used to help researchers better understand the effects of anemia.
But perhaps the most immediate and widespread application of Antarctic notothenioid research is the potential uses of the species' antifreeze proteins. These fishes have adapted to the cold, stable waters of the Southern Ocean. These species live at temperatures generally ranging from -1.8 to +1.5 degrees Celsius, meaning that these fish can survive in waters below the freezing point of freshwater.
As ectotherms, the physiology of Antarctic notothenioids is inherently impacted by environmental temperature. Temperate-water fish species would never be able to survive in sub-zero temperatures; in addition to a host of other problems, their body fluids would freeze.
Antarctic notothenioids have compensated for these temperatures by producing antifreeze proteins that mitigate ice crystal formation in the blood. Antifreeze proteins are relatively rare among organisms, but have been characterized in other species including invertebrates, plants and fungi. These proteins have different binding and cold tolerance properties based on the conditions under which they have evolved.
Antifreeze proteins have proven extremely valuable commercially. Antifreeze proteins have been used to prevent ice crystallization in ice cream. Transgenic salmon and plants have been created with the gene for these proteins to maximize food production under different climates. Antifreeze proteins also have the potential to minimize complications during cryosurgery.
Thus far, many of these applications have been large accomplished with the proteins of Arctic fishes. However, these proteins are unique, as they evolved separately from the northern species. Increased research on Antarctic fishes may yield further data on the unique properties of these proteins and their potential benefits.