Scientists to probe Erebus ice

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 01/11/2011

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A quest to uncover vestiges of ancient life has led a team of scientists to the summit of Mt Erebus in Antarctica.

Three Waikato University scientists will abseil down "ice chimneys" deep into the slopes of of the mountain to collect the remnants of some of the world's oldest – and hardiest – organisms.

Craig Cary and his team expect to find evidence of ancient life forms that have survived in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, with temperatures in the volcanic soil on the slopes of Mt Erebus reaching more than 65 degrees Celsius. Surrounded by 1500 kilometres of ice, and 4000 metres above sea-level, the earth has barely been disturbed.

To collect the soil, scientists wearing sterile snowsuits abseil into holes in the ice and carve out two-metre-long ice tubes. It is expected the ice will contain bacteria, leaving the scientists holding a sort of time-line of centuries of evolution.

Uncovering the ancient organisms would help scientists trace back the "tree of life" and discover how organisms have evolved.

It could also lead to the discovery of new enzymes, which could be used as alternatives to synthetic compounds in the manufacturing of drugs, Professor Cary said.

"The hope is that when we look at the genetics, we'll be able to see some of the road into the past. In understanding how organisms do it today, we can understand how they did it a long, long time ago."

A National Geographic camera crew will follow the scientists on their voyage.

Mt Erebus is the site where 257 people were killed when an Air New Zealand DC10 crashed in 1979. Professor Cary said the tragedy was always in the minds of the scientists, who were glad they could carry out valuable work on the mountain and draw attention to the many scientific developments of Kiwis.

"Mt Erebus is very firm in the hearts of New Zealanders, and this is a great tribute to them to have this piece of work done and to have it in National Geographic."

The scientists' quest has taken them to Yellowstone volcano in California, and many sites in South America.

It is funded by a Marsden Grant.

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- The Dominion Post

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