The Blue Green Blog

Selected tags

Professor Stuart Egginton, a fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and the Physiological Society,has been conducting polar research for 30 years, with one of the academic papers he has worked on named the best of 2018. What makes his research so strong is that he travels to the Antarctic to obtain first-hand evidence of the effect of global warming on our planet, and particularly on polar species.

His first journey was back in 1989, and he has made the 10,000 mile journey seven times since then, in collaboration with top researchers around the globe.

Professor Egginton’s recent research includes studying translucent icefish that are one of the few species that thrive in cold environments. In fact, icefish can’t survive in warmer waters due to a genetic mutation, which is why they only live in Antarctic seas. Now that the temperature of Arctic waters is on the rise, the survival of icefish is at risk.

Researchers are looking to find out the impact of climate change on the ecosystem. Professor Eggington says:“Global warming will have the biggest effect in the most vulnerable area of the world, Antarctica. We must understand the challenges facing species living there because they may provide an indicator of responses to be felt in the rest of the world.”

Icefish have white blood, as it doesn’t contain haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood. The advantage is that their blood is more fluid and easier to pump around their bodies, saving energy, but the disadvantage is that their blood has poorer oxygen-carrying abilities, therefore requiring hearts that are bigger than other fish, in order to pump more blood around the body, which strains the heart.

Professor Egginton and his colleagues have published papers, including “A Solution to Nature’s Haemoglobin Knockout,” which was awarded the Outstanding Paper Prize in 2018, from the Journal of Experimental Biology. The paper found that icefish do not have erythrocytes in their blood, and that the enzyme carbonic anhydrase, normally found in red blood cells in other species, is found in the gills of icefish. This means that icefish can remove carbon dioxide through their gills.

This paper, resulting from the expedition, has spurred more plans for future research on cardio-respiratory physiology in 2019. It also suggests that icefish may not be able to cope with a long term rise in sea temperature. If the sea was even a few degrees warmer, which is the expected result of climate change, it could lead to their extinction, as they wouldn’t be able to swim, feed or reproduce normally.

Professor Egginton says computer models have been useful in predicting the effects of climate change, but examining how living species react "in real time" is also valuable.“Antarctica is a great lab to look at unique species. It pushes our knowledge, and shows how life copes with changes in unexpected ways, and what the limits to adaptation might be. By studying the anatomy and physiology of species like the icefish we can draw conclusions for other life on the planet, including ourselves. To find answers, increasingly we have to look in strange places because ecologically, if things are going wrong in Antarctica, the rest of the world will follow suit.”